The Red Bulls stood up for themselves in 2020 with a bunch of late heroics, but they have become less dominant in recent years.
Streaky regular seasons have come by and the boys seem to be putting themselves into less than ideal positions a lot more often than not.
To possibly find out why, and to see how each position did in 2020, let’s review what happened on each line.
Goalkeeper // Grade: B
Luis Robles left for Inter Miami due to the non-renewal of his contract in 2020, so this was always going to be a difficult position to fill. That is, of course, unless you have what the team described as an “absolute champion” behind Robles in Ryan Meara, a native of the New York side of the metropolitan area. He has been with the team for the best part of a decade and has been a bedrock of leadership, pride, commitment, patience, and bottom-up quality.
With 14 starts this year, he was one of the leaders in save percentage this year and saw the Red Bulls past the wild card spots and a conference quarterfinal finish. From what I saw this year, I think despite the fact that there are two good goalkeepers in him and Daniel Jensen, I think the position is his.
Defense // Grade: C+
This area has a whole lot of upside but needs improvement as immediately as possible from a dominant, championship standpoint. We have our decade-long partnership in Aaron Long and Tim Parker, two typical rock-solid, defensively sound, aerially present center backs with a passion and leadership for this team. they are dependable and cinderblocks in the back on their best day. But they need more of these in order to prove themselves a true championship defensive heart. For example, they cannot have bad nights in critical situations like the 2018 Eastern Conference Final 1st leg against Atlanta United. They could also use a little bit more tightening up in games like the Conference Quarterfinal against Columbus.
The Red Bulls need that little bit more in terms of consistency and to turn their upside into something special in order to really let opposing attackers know that the heart of the Red Bull defense is not something to mess with.
At full back, we put in some shifts to help out on both sides of the ball. Jason Pendant and Kyle Duncan were both stable flank-side defenders in place of Kemar Lawrence and the retired Connor Lade. However, I think a few signings to turn up the competitive heat should strengthen things.
Midfield // Grade: B-
The all-around, energetic, mixed style of the Red Bulls’ midfield has been a joy to watch. Every player, including Daniel Royer and Kaku, have a two-way game and is using it to the best of their ability on both sides of the ball. However, one area that needs improvement immediately is to use that all-around game to apply the fortitude that they have a little bit more consistently, especially when the other team is coming back the other way. I felt that the game against Columbus showed that problem; they were letting teams through a little too much.
That is, however, one of two reasons why I feel this may be the position where a championship is determined; the other is Florian Valot. He, for me, epitomizes that all-around style that the Red Bulls have in the middle of the park. But that is not just on the field, it is off as well. He came back from two ACL injuries, his left in ’18 and his right in ’19, to be back in the Red Bulls lineup and sowing what hitting back and being persevering is about.
There are times where looking to somebody else in the midst of the essence of being yourself is a good thing; the more this midfield draws from Valot, the better. Kaku has continued to be the difference-maker at playmaker, getting 5 assists in 16 games. Caden Clark has burst onto the scene this year with 3 goals in 8 games; the winner in his debut against Atlanta, the late equalizer in his next game against Toronto, and the opener against Columbus.
Forward // Grade: B+
Another position that was going to be hard to replace was the forward position with the departure of Bradley Wright-Phillips. That being said, Brian White and Tom Barlow have been good for us with work rate, attacking intent, and scoring. White had the team lead with 6 goals, including two of the late equalizers during the Red Bulls’ “cardiac” stretch.
That number, however, has to be increased as we were almost nowhere near the top 10 and we had moments where we could have done more to grab the late, battling win. in the end, in the context of how this team performed throughout the pitch, I think these two did admirably well.
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