The New York Red Bulls enjoyed another very successful campaign in 2018, which featured their third Supporters Shield in six seasons and semi-finals appearances in two major cup competitions. The Red Bulls came into the year with a bit of transfer window drama, as their pursuit of midfielder Alejandro Romero Gamarra became an extremely public affair. Dubbed ‘#Kakuwatch’, they ultimately signed Kaku for a club-record $6.25m transfer fee right as the CONCACAF Champions League was ramping up. New York enjoyed a particularly strong run through the competition, which included the first road victory by an MLS club over a La Liga opponent, before falling to eventual CCL champions C.D. Guadalajara in the semi-finals.
Fortunately for New York, they managed to avoid the hangover that plagued fellow CCL participants Toronto and Seattle, as the club went 7-3 over their first ten league matches. This momentum persisted throughout the regular season, as the club finished with a MLS-record 71 points, winning the Supporters’ Shield during a thrilling Selection Sunday where they came in a point behind Atlanta in the table. Once in the playoffs, the Red Bulls managed to vanquish yet another demon that has plagued the club over the years: the club had never advanced to the next round in any two-legged knockout competition after losing the first leg. During the first leg of the 2018 Eastern Quarterfinals, New York traveled to Columbus and fell 1-0 to the Crew, thanks in no small part to an incredible performance from Columbus keeper Zack Steffen. However, the Red Bulls managed to rally in the home leg with a decisive 3-0 victory and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Unfortunately, the Red Bulls were unable to repeat this performance in the next round as they came out flat on the road in Atlanta, suffering a 3-0 defeat in the first leg and exiting the MLS Playoffs following a 0-0 home leg draw.
Since Jesse Marsch implemented the Ralfball system utilized globally by Red Bull squads in 2015, New York has been notorious for its disruptive, up-tempo, high-pressing system. Chris Armas took the reins mid-season in 2018 once Marsch went to Leipzig and pretty much stayed the course, albeit with a few tweaks such as a higher emphasis on building from the back and maintaining possession in specific scenarios. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Armas continue to add his own wrinkles, but we expect the overall scheme to remain the same: run with a high back line, disrupt the opponent, create turnovers, and generate high-quality opportunities in transition.
Over the past few years, the above system primarily utilized a 4-2-3-1 setup, but we saw instances of other formations being applied; Marsch attempted to mirror RB Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2 a few times during his tenure, and there were other instances where the club deployed a 3-6-1 or a 5-4-1 based on matchup or player availability. Nevertheless, RBNY appears to be featuring a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation in the lead-up to the MLS regular season, so that’s how we’re expecting them to line up on opening day.
Tyler Adams’ transfer to RB Leipzig means that there is a world-class pair of shoes to fill in the heart of the New York midfield. That being said, there is arguably no better club equipped to handle the departure of a high-caliber player than the Red Bulls, whose team-based, high-pressure system means that they won’t have to rely on a single player to plug the hole left by the future USMNT star. Marc Rzatkowski is the front-runner to replace him in that role, alongside a returning Sean Davis.
Adams transfer aside, the Red Bulls had a relatively quiet transfer window, particularly from a “fantasy relevancy” standpoint. The club brought in 18-year-old Danish forward Mathias Jorgensen with a reported $2.5m transfer fee; given that future hall-of-famer Bradley Wright-Phillips is spearheading the New York attack, this is definitely more of a forward-looking transfer, but we anticipate seeing him come off the bench and earning a handful of spot starts this season to give BWP a break.
The Red Bulls added some quality depth by bringing in winger Marcus Epps from Philadelphia and defender Amro Tarek from Orlando, both of whom have MLS minutes under their belts. Lastly, the club have promoted Cristian Casseres Jr. and Omir Fernandez from RBNY2 to the main roster, both of whom have looked good during the preseason and should contend for some minutes during the 2019 campaign.
From a high level, I’m anticipating roughly the same overall fantasy output that the Red Bulls produced in 2017. New York will come in to the season with the same back line that earned the highest number of regular season shutouts in 2018, so Red Bulls defensive players should enjoy another season of solid fantasy production, especially those rounds where they play at home. On the attacking end, each player in the expected Starting XI will now have a full season under their belts, both within the Red Bull system as well as alongside one another on the pitch. Red Bull goal scoring is typically not as concentrated on specific players as it is at other clubs, as virtually any RBNY attacker could be on the end of the final pass following a high-press-generated turnover in the attacking third… but the team will likely average anywhere between 1.6-2.2 goals per match, if prior seasons are any indicator of 2019 success.
In terms of specific players, I prefer to organize them into two categories for my previews: Nailed-On Starters and Contending For Minutes
In this section, I’ll run through the players who are virtually guaranteed to be starters each week for the first month of the season.
First, we’ll flip the script here and start from the back as opposed to the front. Reigning MLS Ironman and RBNY captain Luis Robles (6.0m) will take his spot between the goalposts once again this season, directly behind USMNT-capped center-backs Tim Parker (7.0m) and Aaron Long (7.0m), the latter of whom is the reigning MLS Defender Of The Year. Parker and Long each signed extended deals with New York during the offseason, which a good indication of how integral these two players are to RBNY’s defensive success. Both players should generate quite a few defensive bonus points and clean sheets in 2019, and have even shown a penchant for finding the net on set-piece goals.
Alongside Parker and Long are Michael Murillo (7.0m) and Kemar “Taxi” Lawrence (6.5m), who are both regarded amongst the top fullbacks in the league. The New York scheme relies on both players to have quite a bit of involvement in the attacking third along the flanks, while requiring them to quickly get back and defend when opponents are in possession or transitioning to the attacking phase. Nature of this assignment involves immense amounts of effort and individual defensive prowess, especially against teams that prefer to play out wide… but fortunately for New York, both Lawrence and Murillo thrive in this role. In addition to the clean sheet benefits both players receive from being defenders, they are each good for a handful of assists during the regular season (if not the occasional goal), given their presences in the attacking third. Taxi is especially attractive at 6.5m – we’re pretty surprised to see that he didn’t come in at the same price as the rest of his fellow back-linders.
Sean Davis (7.5m) returns once again in the central midfield. Regarded as the best counter-presser in the lineup, he is a consistent producer of defensive bonus points, and will likely have a share in free kicks once again in 2019. Davis is also good for the occasional goal from outside the box, but for the most part his involvement in the attack is to be the initial distributor during the buildup or being a deeper swing-man when trying to penetrate a compact opposing block in the final third. He as a mid-to-high floor player with the potential to provide the occasional attacking contribution on the scoresheet, he seems a bit expensive at 7.5m, but if there is room for him as the third-to-fifth midfielder in your lineup, he could be worth a shot.
Across all RBNY attackers, the price for Danny Royer (7.5m) seems a shade on the low side. The Austrian native dealt with a handful of injuries last year for sure, but Royer is the type of high-upside player where if you manage to catch him on the right week, his production is nothing short of explosive. Royer turns 29 this year, so he still has some gas left in the tank – if he can manage to stay on the pitch consistently and remain in sync with his teammates, his creativity and goal-scoring prowess should generate outsized fantasy returns… not to mention that he is expected to remain on PKs this season. Alongside Royer in the midfield will be Kaku (9.0m), who is expected to be the primary creative force in the center of the pitch for the Red Bulls again this season. The young Paraguay-capped DP was nothing short of phenomenal from a fantasy standpoint to start the season, but things definitely slowed down in the second half of the 2018 campaign as opponents zeroed in on Kaku and stifled his production (on the scoresheet, at least). That being said, now that the 24-year-old has spent a full year both in the league and within the New York scheme, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him come out of the 2019 season amongst the top 10 fantasy midfielders.
Lastly, there isn’t much to say about Bradley Wright-Phillips (10.5m) that hasn’t already been said. BWP continues to age like a fine wine, consistently producing as one of the top fantasy forwards year-in and year-out. Not only is he one of the most elite finishers the league has ever seen, the Englishman continues to add to his bag of tricks each year: he has extremely underrated vision, allowing him to make clever passes and spring teammates for easy finishes. His hold-up play has markedly improved each season, despite going up against central defenders much larger than himself. He is amongst the best forwards in the league at pressing opposing defenders and midfielders on the ball, as well as recognizing when his teammates will be generating a turnover and immediately flying upfield to draw the attention of scrambling opponents and causing their lines to break down. Father Time hasn’t been able to slow him down yet… and until we start to see clear signs of him doing so, we will continue to Trust In BWP in our fantasy lineups.
Contending For Minutes
Mark Rzatkowski (7.0m) seems to be the lead candidate to replace Tyler Adams in the New York midfield, having signed a new contract during the January transfer window. RZA showed flashes of brilliance at various times last season on both ends of the pitch; he banged in a couple of real nice goals from distance, sprung his teammates for some easy tap-ins, and picked a few pockets when the opposing team was looking to build up play following a turnover. Cristian Casseres Jr (6.0m) was promoted from RBNY2 and is also in contention for minutes in that role, but it seems to be RZA’s job to lose at the moment.
Alex Muyl (6.5m) has been a favorite of the RBNY staff for years, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see his name in the Starting XI quite a bit this season. Muyl may have been the most-memed player on the MLS subreddit last season for a series of extremely visible miscues in front of the net, but let’s be fair here: the kid has clearly a knack for putting himself in great positions to make a play; if he didn’t, then there wouldn’t have been any high-profile misses or alleged dives to talk about in the first place. There will never be a question as to his engine, which rivals that of Tyler Adams, and has always been a solid defensive contributor and role player. Rumor has it that he’s spent significant amounts of time after-hours working on his finishing during the preseason – could this be the year Alex Muyl finally puts it all together?
Florian Valot (7.5m) was enjoying an incredible rookie season along the right wing in 2018 and had cemented a spot in the XI before a freak ACL tear cut his season short. Word is that he’s still working his way back to match fitness, and the ACL will definitely be a question mark early on – but if he’s able to pick up where he left off last season, he should challenge Muyl for that starting spot along the right wing.
Midfielders Derrick Etienne Jr (6.0m), Andreas Ivan (5.5m), Omir Fernandez (5.5m), Vincent Bezecourt (5.5m), Marcus Epps (5.0m), defender Connor Lade (4.5m), and aforementioned new signing Mathias Jorgensen (7.0m) will likely not be in consideration for the Starting XI on opening weekend, but some (if not all) should receive a chance to contribute this season, especially if RBNY have to deal with injuries early on in the season.