It is time for the Portland Timbers to get back on the pitch, so let’s look to our SB Nation sister site, Once a Metro, to get some insight into the side’s opponents in this evening’s preseason opener, the New York Red Bulls. Or, if you are wondering what to expect from the Timbers themselves, you can find our answers over here and our match preview right here.
(And by that I mean, how are New York fans reacting to the loss of the Red Bulls captain and key player, Dax McCarthy, and how will his loss be filled in? Can you play GAM at CM?)
I think we're all curious to see how a stack of GAM does in a holding midfield role. If it isn't quite up to it, we're expecting to see Sean Davis as the preferred Dax replacement.
As to how fans are reacting: it's not the universal outcry one might expect of a guy who gave as much as he did, so successfully, to the club, but I think a number of RBNY fans had an inkling a move like this would be made. The team has an almost proud history of jettisoning fan favorites in sub-optimal ways, and the latest RBNY leadership is as ruthless as any that have come before in that regard. So ruthless in fact we now have rumors that they have turned on each other. No one has heard from Ali Curtis since he abruptly quit the Draft about two weeks ago. So we're not entirely sure what is going on inside the front office.
But ditching Dax is, sadly, very much characteristic of the club in general, and particularly since 2015. This isn't a management team that is afraid of the unpopular decisions. Not for the first time, it has put itself in the position of needing to justify its actions with results on the field. It seems to like it that way. And, to be honest, there's some evidence that it sort of works. In 2013, we had a disastrous off-season that saw the club apparently unable to find anyone to coach the first team. Mike Petke was appointed for the simple reason it was time for preseason to start and he was there to take training. We won our first ever trophy. We won our second after Ali Curtis came in and decided Petke wasn't up to a job most thought he'd kinda proven he could handle. Second-ever trophy follows that decision.
Everyone associated with RBNY is impatient for that first MLS Cup. The best way I can rationalize the decision to ditch Dax is the simple observation that the club has learned that whenever it taunts the soccer gods, it seems to profit from the experience.
What changes have the Red Bulls made over the offseason? Who's in, who's out, and what changes to the Red Bulls still need to make for 2016 to be a success?
There was this guy called Dax McCarty and...what? Oh, you heard about that? OK, well beyond Dax, the team has parted ways with center back Ronald Zubar and right back Chris Duvall - of last year's key contributors. Replacements? Well, this year's strategy so far has been very much to promote from within. The team has signed four new players to date: two midfielders and two goalkeepers; two Homegrown signings and two effectively promoted from the USL squad.
As to replacing that center back and right back we lost along the way: we just don't know. The rumor mill isn't providing many clues and everything the team is doing at the moment suggests the plan is to keep on promoting from within. There is right back cover in the squad - Sal Zizzo and Connor Lade are presumed to be battling for the start in preseason - and there are center backs, finally. The team has recently re-signed Aurelien Collin and Damien Perrinelle. Prior to their return, we were curious about whether RBNY had noticed it had released all but one of its specialist CBs at the end of last season. So we have three center backs on the roster now, which seems like too few but we're still sort of pleased with the fact that we have center backs at all.
RBNY fans will be watching the CB and RB positions closely in preseason. There are some trialists auditioning for supporting roles in both positions. And the way the midfield sets up will be interesting to see. The Red Bulls tried and failed to execute a formation shift last season. Seems like they haven't abandoned hope (they might not be allowed to: what they are trying to shift to is the baseline tactic for RBs Leipzig and Salzburg). So we might see further experimentation with the personnel adjustments necessary to make a 4-2-2-2 work for us. Jesse Marsch has spent a lot of time watching Leipzig this winter. The "where's Jesse?" brouhaha at the Combine was at least the third time he'd slipped away to be with the Bundesliga Bulls since November.
I think that is the primary change needed for the team to make the next step forward. Not copy-catting RB Europe, per se, but a true alternative look, tactically. RBNY's problem the last two seasons has been having no reliable second option. If an opponent has us figured out, we're figured out: game over. I think the preseason priority is to get that much-needed plan B off the ground.
We all know Sacha Kljestan (who won't be in this game anyway due to USMNT duty), Bradley Wright-Phillips, and the other mainstays of the Red Bulls, but what lesser-known players should we be keeping an eye on today? What up and coming players or new arrivals are Red Bulls fans excited for?
We're all interested to see whether Jesse Marsch has finally figured out what to do with Gonzalo Veron - the attacking DP we signed two seasons ago and seem to have no idea what to do with. This should be winger Daniel Royer's year to make a statement. He had fitness issues last year and was a late-season signing, but in a few short appearances he looked very good. I don't think I have ever seen a new signing settle into our current system so quickly and effectively.
Of the up-and-comers, we thought this was the year for Sean Davis to make a big step up before the team let Dax go. Now it almost has to be. Derrick Etienne looked to have outgrown USL last year, so he's maybe at the front of a crop of younger attacking players hoping to get substantial first team minutes this season. And I'm very curious to see new signing Arun Basuljevic play. He's a midfielder who some suggest could be the next Sacha, depending on how the team uses him and how he kicks on now he's turned pro. That's not to burden him with that tag, just to say he's highly rated by those who have monitored his development, and like Kljestan he's got a versatility to his game that suggests he might follow an interesting trajectory as a pro.