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Once a Metro Previews Timbers at Red Bulls

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers are out east and set to take on the New York Red Bulls this afternoon, so let’s take a look at their opponents with some help from Austin Fido of Once a Metro, SB Nation’s Red Bulls Blog.

The Red Bulls are packing in the fixtures this week as they turn around an host their CONCACAF foes Club Tijuana on Tuesday. How will Jesse Marsch handle the tight turnaround? Will we see some squad rotation or will the Red Bulls be relying on their youngsters to bounce back quickly from match to match?

Good question. Marsch could go either way, and I wouldn’t blame him for whichever option he chooses. My guess is he won’t rotate nearly as much as we might expect. It’s still early days in the season and he’s trying to build fitness and chemistry on the field. The team also has promoted this game as a chance for fans to see our new big-splash signing, Kaku, and I’m not sure that the Red Bulls will throw him on the field surrounded by reserves (though that did happen in preseason). It would sort of defeat the point of getting him on the field quickly.

I expect light rotation. Maybe a planned substitution for BWP at 60 minutes, little-to-no Marc Rzatkowski - cos it sounds like the team wants him to be fully fit for CCL next week - and perhaps a start for the likes of Derrick Etienne, Connor Lade, Fidel Escobar, Carlos Rivas, or even Tommy Redding (who has sort of disappeared recently). But I’d be surprised to see a lineup featuring all five of those guys from kick-off.

I think Jesse will shoot for something closely resembling a first XI, have an idea of who he would like to sub out early in the second half, and hope to give Kaku his first experience of a full 90 with his new teammates against serious opposition.

Another year and another New York institution traded away with Sacha Kljestan sent south to Orlando. How is the team coping with the loss of the 2017 assist leader and how has the side changed in his absence?

So far, so good in terms of results: we’re unbeaten in three and have kept back-to-back clean sheets. My sense is the team has been largely focused on doing what it needs to do to win games in CCL at the moment, so the longer-term identity of the Sacha-free Red Bulls maybe hasn’t emerged just yet. But I do think we’ve seen at least one aspect of the revised approach since the start of preseason: more tactical fluidity.

RBNY isn’t going to stop trying to be a recognizable part of the Red Bull family of soccer teams - so the pressing isn’t going away, and of course the youth movement is as ingrained in RB Global soccer as the high press. But Marsch looks like he’s trying to develop a team that can seamlessly change formations mid-game, with or without changing personnel on the field. To an extent, he’s been trying to do that for at least two years; to an extent, Sacha sort of held that effort back since it was quickly proved pointless to have him on the field in sub-optimal positions or roles. We’ll find out this year if Jesse really has the group he seems to think he does: one that can change up its formation and approach based on game state, without necessarily telegraphing that change to the opposition with a key substitution.

Up to a point, Kaku was brought in to fill the play-making gap created by Sacha’s absence. He’s a 23-year-old Argentine playmaker with more than 100 pro games under his belt already. By RBNY’s standards, he was a massive investment: $6.25 million in transfer fees and expenses, per some reports. He’s here to win games for us from the get-go.

Based on very limited opportunity to see him play, it looks like he’s being encouraged to function much like Kljestan: operate largely as an attacking central midfielder and look to be the key that unlocks the defense. Whether he generates the same volume of assists as Kljestan will depend largely on whether he’s making the passes that end up in the net.

So far this season, BWP has scored three of our four goals; so that part of the equation hasn’t changed. It seems many analysts have missed the simple observation that a team that has a high-volume goal scorer is often likely to have a high-volume assist-maker as well. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Henry and Kljestan had record-breaking assist-making seasons for RBNY playing behind BWP, and I assume someone will benefit similarly this year, as long as Wright-Phillips keeps scoring. I think BWP’s finishing creates more assists than conventional wisdom allows.

Our newfound tactical fluidity - if it comes off - could see credit for setting up BWP getting spread around the squad a little more evenly. Or maybe Kaku will be the dominating creative force we’re all hoping he will be.

The Red Bulls have made a point of playing their kids in recent years; how has that gone for the team and who is the latest starlet that soccer fans out on the far coast should be keeping an eye on?

Playing kids for the sake of playing kids doesn’t make a lot of sense to me: that’s what youth and reserve teams are for. But the Red Bulls are playing what they regard as a young man’s version of a young man’s game, so the motivation to get younger is largely the club’s sense that younger players respond better to the team’s tactical approach - both in terms of being receptive to it and its execution.

Jesse said 2017 was his “most successful” season at RBNY. It wasn’t, not in terms of results; but it seems what he was getting at was that the team was finally walking its talk. Shipping out senior players, bringing through younger members of the squad: it is the Red Bull way, and RBNY is living that dream when it trades away the likes of Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, and Felipe and puts its faith in guys like Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, Alex Muyl, and Sean Davis. When Jesse looks at his team and sees substantial contributions from players nurtured through the club’s Academy and II team, or acquired as U-23s and thrown into the first team - it seems he regards that as “more successful” than simply throwing some money at some proven 30-somethings and playing whatever way it suits them to win games. And since his bosses in Austria and Germany likely agree with him, he’s entitled to talk that up as a measure of success.

But we need some results to really validate the notion that what has worked for Ralf Rangnick for most of his career, and for Red Bulls Salzburg and Leipzig since 2012, will also work for RBNY. No need to regard 2017’s dip in results as any more than a blip for now, but also no getting away from the fact that a club’s success should be found in its trophy cabinet, not the number of youth-teamers it promotes to the first team every year.

That said, no one doubts Tyler Adams is a special prospect and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had as a fan watching the club’s youth develop. The likes of Adams, Long, Muyl, and Davis feel a bit like old news now - though that’s harsh on all of them. This season, look out for Derrick Etienne. He’s been signed to he first team since 2016, but hasn’t had great success in winning significant time on the field just yet. But he’s a Red Bull Academy graduate, won’t turn 22 til November, and this feels like the year he’ll either breakout for RBNY or break away and find another place to play.

Looking way beyond him, keep an eye out for three teenagers: defender Hassan Ndam (19 years old), midfielder Cristian Casseres (18), and forward Ben Mines (17). All three seem most likely to be with our reserve team this season, and Mines and Casseres only joined the MLS roster this year. But if even one of them is considered a big deal in MLS by the end of this season, they and RBNY have done very well.

Lineup prediction?

My prediction is this is wrong: Luis Robles; Kemar Lawrence, Aurelien Collin, Tim Parker, Connor Lade; Tyler Adams, Sean Davis; Daniel Royer, Kaku (aka Alejandro Romero Gamarra), Derrick Etienne; Bradley Wright-Phillips