The route to running a successful high press, the desired system of the New York Red Bulls, is through the center back position.
Traditionally, center backs are left on an island as the whole team pushes up the field. That means their role comprises of putting out fires and dealing with inevitable fast breaks every match. The desired strongest pairing is two strong, mistake-limiting center backs that are equally comfortable in physical battles for headers and quick enough to shut down attackers coming in from the wing with perfectly timed tackles. Admittedly, this is a lot to ask from the position.
In 2015, the New York Red Bulls had the right pairing with Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle. The young Academy graduate and the wily veteran led the team to a Supporters' Shield, displaying strong chemistry and the ability to close down attackers with ease.
Having a strong center back pairing frees up the rest of the team to operate at its peak. The fullbacks join the attack sacrificing some of their defensive roles. Defensive midfielders focus on distribution, and there's room in the formation for creative wingers with a lower defensive work rate. It's no coincidence that the Red Bulls took an immediate downward turn toward elimination when Perrinelle was injured in the playoffs last season.
Heading into 2016, the Red Bulls needed to replace both center backs. Miazga left for English Premier League power Chelsea, and Perrinelle was facing a long injury layoff after tearing his ACL. The team attempted to reload by purchasing Europa League standout Gideon Baah from HJK Helsinki and drafting Zach Carroll. Oft-injured Ronald Zubar and Karl Ouimette returned to the squad, and the Red Bulls would attempt to weather the storm until Perrinelle was able to return.
The club's plans were dashed almost immediately. Zubar continued to be plagued with injury issues. Baah was sidelined with a hamstring injury in week three and suffered a season-ending broken leg in July. Ouimette and Carroll did not impress the coaching staff, were supplanted in the lineup by Chris Duvall and Kemar Lawrence playing out of position, and eventually removed from the roster.
It was a gamble to start the season with a thin, untested group of center backs, and the Red Bulls paid the price. However, Sporting Director Ali Curtis rectified his mistake by trading for Aurelien Collin, a former MLS Best XI player stuck in a bad situation with Orlando City SC. It turned out to be one of the best trades in recent MLS history, as his impact was immediate and turned the season around.
During his tenure as a Red Bull, Collin provided consistency, veteran leadership and a "you love him if he's on your team" physicality that set the tone against many opponents. His physical play helped disrupt oncoming counters, and his veteran match management stabilized a group of center backs in disarray.
Despite what may have been a season saving trade, the injuries kept piling up at every position. Curtis was forced to make another emergency center back signing, bringing in Aaron Long from the reserves, even though it forced the club to dip into its stash of allocation money.
The constantly in-flux back line struggled to build the same chemistry as 2015, which resulted in several blown leads, as opposing teams thrived on the counter attack. The absence of a strong center back pairing hampered the Red Bulls' ability to experiment with different formations and increase tactical flexibility. The main focus became a total commitment to defense, from starting two defensive minded wingers to keeping midfielders Dax McCarty and Felipe from venturing too far forward into the attack. Instead of a few defenders providing a foundation for the high press, the team was built around protecting the back line.
It's a stretch to say that the lack of a strong center back pairing is why the Red Bulls failed to capture the seemingly attainable Supporters' Shield or MLS Cup in 2016, but it's certainly a reason. With the offseason starting much sooner than expected, the team already faces the same issues it did last year.
Zubar, who disappeared from match day lineups at the end of the season, is reportedly being eyed by teams in France. Collin was noncommittal about his future with the club in an interview with Surface magazine. Perrinelle, while reliable, is 33-years old and has a demonstrated history of costly injuries. Baah will undoubtedly be back considering the club paid a transfer fee to acquire him last winter, but he didn't play long enough to establish himself or build any on-field chemistry with current teammates.
If the Red Bulls have learned their lesson from this most recent season, then the center back position needs to be strengthened. Curtis recently informed the media that the team has "some targets outside of MLS" and plans on making "some smart measured decisions." It stands to reason that a few of those targets are center backs and the measured decisions involve building a better back line.