The New York Red Bulls open the MLS regular season on the road against the expansion Atlanta United at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium on Sunday, March 5. The club has gone through some changes during the offseason, trading captain Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire and replacing Sporting Director Ali Curtis with assistant coach Denis Hamlett.
The Red Bulls got an early start to the 2017 season, falling 3-1 on aggregate to the Vancouver Whitecaps in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. It was an ugly home-and-away series featuring poor defending and several blown opportunities in front of goal. The home opener provides an immediate opportunity for the Red Bulls to turn things around instead of falling into another early season rut.
Atlanta is led by former Barcelona and Argentina manager Tata Martino and boasts a high flying roster of young Designated Players and strong veterans. While most expansion teams experience difficult first seasons, some pundits are predicting that that this squad could be strong enough to reach the playoffs.
Here are three storylines to keep an eye on heading into the match.
Can a makeshift defense stop Atlanta United's attack?
Atlanta spent a lot of money building its attack. The club brought in rumored Arsenal target Miguel Almiron, pacey Argentine winger Hector Villalba, and striker Josef Martinez on loan from Serie A club Torino as Designated Players. There's also Trinidad and Tobago striker Kenwyne Jones, Argentine attacker Yamil Asad and highly rated US youth international Andrew Carleton supplementing the front line. Atlanta has a solid, multi-dimensional group that can provide several different looks, but during the preseason they were most effective on quick strike counter attacks.
Strong counter attacking teams happen to be the Red Bulls' weakness over the past two seasons. The main flaw in the high press is that it leaves teams open to the counter attack. Fullbacks press up the field, which leaves the two center backs on an island, responsible for stopping attacks coming through the middle and up the wing. Further compounding the issue was that last year's back line was constantly in flux due to injuries and never truly got settled.
The Red Bulls are starting the season missing some defensive pieces, with Gideon Baah returning from injury and Damien Perrinelle still working his way back into the squad after an abbreviated preseason. Last year's stalwart Aurelien Collin will likely pair with Aaron Long and attempt to slow down Atlanta.
Has there been an evolution to the high press?
There could be two major changes to the Red Bulls' tactics this season. The first has been well publicized: a switch from Jesse Marsch's favored 4-2-3-1 formation to the 4-2-2-2. The club attempted this shift last season, but it was dropped for a variety of reasons. The issues with the formation still persist, but the club appears more committed to it in 2017.
For it to be a long term solution, Sacha Kljestan will have to become more comfortable on the wing, Gonzalo Veron needs to stay healthy, and Felipe cannot continue to roam freely around the field. If the team is able to adapt, then they will reap the rewards of the unorthodox, midfield clogging formation. If not, then expect an eventual return to the familiar 4-2-3-1.
The other tactical change might be backing off the high press. The up tempo, high disruption defense has been synonymous with the Red Bulls for the past two seasons, but sister club Leipzig has already moved in a different direction. As described by Michael Caley for SB Nation, Leipzig employs a more deep-lying press that relies on limiting opponent shots and switches the key battles to the midfield. A lower risk, more methodical press would benefit a Red Bulls side that is still operating with a makeshift back line
Who will emerge as the secondary goal scorer?
For the past three seasons, Bradley Wright-Phillips has been the key to the Red Bulls' success. Last year, the English striker led MLS in scoring (for the second time in two seasons) with 24 goals, winning his second Golden Boot. Wright-Phillips continues to find space, despite being the sole focus of opponent game planning. However, the team has struggled to find a reliable goal scorer for when he goes cold.
Last season, additional goal scoring was provided by Mike Grella (seven goals), Kljestan (six), and Felipe (five). However, Grella struggled to score after fellow winger Lloyd Sam was traded, with one goal after June. Kljestan is generally relied upon to provide service and Felipe will be playing deeper in the formation this season.
It's crucial that the Red Bulls find a reliable secondary scoring option. One potential player is Designated Player Veron. The Argentine winger has received plenty of criticism in the past for his lack of production, but the team appears committed to giving him a chance this season. Another option is midfielder Daniel Royer, who was acquired last summer and showed flashes of high quality in limited minutes. There's also the rumored addition of Red Bull Salzburg striker Fredrik Gulbrandsen, who was a consistent scorer with Molde but has failed to impress in the Austrian Bundesliga.