After winning their second Supporters' Shield in three seasons, the Red Bulls are gunning for their first MLS Cup title.
2015 regular season: 1st Eastern Conference (1st overall)
2015 playoffs: Conference Championship; 2-1 aggregate loss to Columbus Crew SC
MLS Cup odds: 5/1
Players in: Tyler Adams (Homegrown), Brandon Allen (Homegrown), Derrick Etienne (Homegrown), Alex Muyl (Homegrown), Chris Thorsheim (Homegrown), Scott Thomsen (Homegrown), Gideon Baah (HJK Helsinki, undisclosed)
Players out: Roy Miller (option declined), Anthony Wallace (option declined), Leo Stolz (option declined), Manolo Sanchez (option declined), Marius Obekop (option declined), Dane Richards (option declined), Santiago Castano (released), Matt Miazga (Chelsea, undisclosed), Shawn McLaws (waived)
After losing Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill last winter, as well as the controversial sacking of fan favourite head coach Mike Petke, 2015 was widely expected to be a transition year for the New York Red Bulls. New boss Jesse Marsch obviously didn’t get the message, though, as his side proceeded to shock the MLS community by not only making the playoffs but also winning the Supporters’ Shield. Their hopes of a first-ever MLS Cup title were ultimately dashed by Columbus Crew SC in the Eastern Conference Championship series, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that the season was a huge success.
With expectation raised, however, the question now is whether Marsch’s high-pressure system can produce similar results in 2016. A new 4-2-2-2 formation has been used during preseason in addition to the tried and tested 4-2-3-1, and that flexibility could be the key to an even better campaign.
Reasons to be positive
With Thierry Henry gone, Bradley Wright-Phillips silenced the sceptics and proved he’s the real deal last season, following up 2014’s record-equalling 27 regular season goals with another 17, all the while growing into a more rounded and versatile front man. The two players feeding him from the wings, Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella, also enjoyed career years, and with high-profile summer signings Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron confined to the bench as a result, coach Marsch now has an enviable amount of attacking depth at his disposal.
Things are just as good in the centre of the pitch, too, where captain Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan make up one of the league’s strongest midfield trios, while homegrown prospects like Sean Davis, Tyler Adams and Derrick Etienne are all waiting in the wings to show their promise.
Add the fact that Luis Robles and Kemar Lawrence are arguably the league’s best goalkeeper and left-back, respectively, and you have a recipe for an MLS Cup contender.
Trouble on the horizon?
If anything’s going to stop the Red Bulls from replicating 2015’s success, it’s their issues at centre-back. 20-year-old Matt Miazga has jumped across the pond to Chelsea following his breakout season, while fellow regular Damien Perrinelle is set to begin the campaign rehabbing after tearing his ACL during the playoffs. That leaves the shaky Ronald Zubar as a projected starter, and though the club have brought in highly-rated Ghana international Gideon Baah from HJK Helsinki, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to live up to his billing. Canadian stopper Karl Ouimette could be a decent option after impressing in limited action last season, but regardless, replacing Miazga will prove no easy task.
Key man: Dax McCarty
Outside of the obvious attacking stars, maybe no player was as important to their team in 2015 as McCarty. Immensely underrated, the Reds Bulls skipper proved an absolute rock in the centre of the park, setting the team’s tempo and protecting the back four with his committed style of play, while also logging eight assists in the process. His impressive campaign saw him become the first defensive midfielder to earn MLS Best XI honours since Ossie Alonso in 2012, but plenty would argue that he deserved a few league MVP votes, too. Since rewarded with a new four-year contract, the 28-year-old will prove fundamental to the club’s fortunes once again this season.
One to watch: Anatole Abang
While Abang only earned three starts in 17 regular season starts last season as Bradley Wright-Phillips’ backup, the 19-year-old Cameroonian certainly showed a great deal of promise. As well as scoring three goals, the 6ft 1in striker added another dimension to the attack with his size and strength, and there is obvious excitement about what he can do in 2016 with a year of MLS experience under his belt.
Predicted regular season finish: 3rd Eastern Conference
Though it’s going to be hard for the Red Bulls to bag a second successive Supporters’ Shield, what we saw in 2015 was no fluke. Marsch has found a formula for success with a group of honest players, and though they may have lost Miazga and failed to bring in any star names, the club should be battling near the top of the East once again this season.