The question was posed to Luis Robles in advance of the Red Bulls’ MLS season opener Saturday at Columbus: “What’s different about this year?’’
“It’s actually not so different, and maybe that’s the theme: continuing where we left off,’’ the 34-year-old goalie said. “Some of it is unfinished business with MLS Cup and even coming up short in the semifinal of CCL [CONCACAF Champions League] Cup. We maintain a huge returning group.’’
Indeed, the Red Bulls return 10 of their 11 starters from 2018, minus only midfielder Tyler Adams, who joined RB Leipzig in Germany’s Bundesliga.
“The core of our team understands what we’re about, what the culture and personality of this organization is,’’ Robles said. “So, in a way, you hope that gives us a competitive advantage.’’
The Red Bulls, who won the Supporters’ Shield last year as the team with the most points in the regular season, are also in the midst of a Champions League run as they begin the MLS season, having advanced to the quarterfinal round. A year ago, the Red Bulls were eliminated in the CCL semifinals.
So there’s a sense of familiarity to the club right now. Also familiar is the team’s pursuit of the MLS Cup, which has eluded the franchise for the balance of the club’s otherwise successful history.
Last season, the Red Bulls lost in the conference finals to Atlanta, who went on to hoist the cup in just their second year of play.
“Our offseason was about trying to figure out what is it we can do to figure out how to get one more win to get to the MLS Cup final,’’ Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett said. “For us, it was trying to keep this group together. We felt that was important when we think about playing style and having more guys who understand the way we play and having success. That was a key priority in the offseason: How many guys can we bring back?’’
Bradley Wright-Phillips, the Red Bulls’ exquisite striker and consistently the most prolific goal scorer in the league over the past five years, said “it can only be an advantage’’ having so many players returning.
“They’ve done a very good job keeping the core together,’’ he said. “That helps going into the new season and not having to explain too much, guys already knowing what’s required from them.’’
As good as the 33-year-old Wright-Phillips is, the heart of the team lies in its back line, led by Aaron Long and Tim Parker, arguably the best tandem of center backs in the league.
“We can make the argument that we have the best defensive line in league, but there’s no argument that we have the best center-back pairing,’’ Robles said. “I look around the league and I don’t see anyone that comes close. They’re physical, they’re gifted, they’re talented and they’re leaders. We have a great spine.’’
Midfielder Alex Muyl, a native of the Lower East Side in Manhattan, said, “We’ve found a formula that we like a lot, and that’s why we didn’t have to change it too much.’’
Added Long: “To have 10 of the 11 starters coming back is amazing for us and what we wanted after a few successful seasons. It gives us a lot of confidence going into the season. We have a lot of high expectation for ourselves this year.’’
Robles: “We have so many great elements on this roster that it allows us to reach the pinnacle.’’
Red Bulls outlook
Offensive MVP: Bradley Wright-Phillips
The two-time Golden Boot winner had 20 goals last season and has produced 105 goals in the past five years. One of the most humble stars in the sport, he’s very much the heart and soul of the team.
Defensive MVP: Luis Robles
The Red Bulls captain, whose MLS record of consecutive starts was halted at 183 games last season by injury, is the most dependable and durable player on the team. He takes his role as captain seriously and is the club’s unquestioned leader on and off the field.
New player to watch: Omir Fernandez
The 19-year-old attacking midfielder figures to be a part of the solution in the absence of Adams. Red Bulls coach Chris Armas raved about Fernandez, a Bronx native who’s the 21st homegrown signing by the club and the 23rd Red Bull Academy player signed to the top team.
“He has a gift of football in him,’’ Armas said. “As an attacker, he’s got intelligence, he’s fast, he’s shifty, his change of speed is interesting, and in the final third, where things are the hardest to operate, he has an easier way than other players.’’
Biggest question mark: Replacing Tyler Adams
This may be done by committee — with Marc Rzatkowski, Sean Davis and young newcomer Cristian Casseres leading the way.
“In terms of the gap left when Tyler left, signing Marc was a big priority in the offseason,’’ Armas said. “We knew that Marc would fit our system. He played many games last year and maybe his best down the stretch. Cristian is a version of Tyler. He’s great on the ball and playing against the ball. We think we’ve got some great options. We like what we have in the middle of the field. We love the depth of this team.’’
Published at Sat, 02 Mar 2019 05:37:37 +0000