It’s a busy week for New York City FC as they prepare for their second Hudson River Derby game in the space of a few days.
Hi Ben, thanks so much for speaking with us. How long have you been covering the New York Red Bulls?
Thanks for inviting me. This is my second year managing Once A Metro, though thanks to the situation last year, in many ways this feels like my first season. Either way my tenure has overlapped with what has been a very interesting moment of change in the club.
What’s been your favorite moment covering the team?
Not to touch on a sore subject, but given my somewhat young career and the Red Bulls' middling results over the last two seasons, I would have to say the tension and drama surrounding the ending of Wednesday night's derby in Harrison is high on the list. Overall I've covered the team during a period that has been more eventful off the field than on it - the arrival of new sporting executive Kevin Thelwell and the replacement of Chris Armas with Gerhard Struber in the head coach role has come in tandem with a plethora of new signings that the team is still getting settled.
This has been Gerhard Struber's first full season with the club. How would you evaluate the team's 2021 campaign?
There's been a lot to like, but as Struber would say, "from a results point of view, it's not so sexy."
After the rudderless Chris Armas era where the 2018 Supporters Shield-winning squad quickly plummeted into mediocrity and tactical incoherence, Struber and Thelwell were given a wide purview to reshape the team top to bottom in the mold now identified with Red Bull's global network of clubs - young, athletic, and with an emphasis on pressing when without the ball. Results under Struber in the season's early months were encouraging as the team consistently played in a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield and inside-out forward play - Brazilian striker Fabio Gomes Netto has been among the league leaders in assists all year while rarely finding the back of the net himself.
But as mentioned earlier, the club has brought in over a dozen new first team signings in the last year while shipping out almost as many. While the turnover in personnel was somewhat overdue as the 2018 shield-winning squad became stale, it left a thin margin for error even before the team lost defensive talisman Aaron Long in May to a season-ending Achilles injury. The loss of Long was compounded by a cascade of more minor injuries in key positions throughout the summer - starters Cristian Casseres, Caden Clark, Sean Nealis, Andres Reyes, and Daniel Royer have all missed significant periods - that eventually led Struber's team into a malaise they've only recently shown signs of emerging from. The confident pressing team of earlier in the season has receded to being a more cagey tactical side that generally defends well but has struggled to create danger in attack, especially of late.
The result is a strange state of affairs where the team currently sits well outside the playoff picture, but with a positive goal differential. Calls for Struber's head are still rare, with most fans either willing to see out his project in a season with better luck and a more settled team or preferring to aim their dismay at ownership.
Our first meeting was a feisty encounter that ended 1-1. What were your takeaways from the game?
As Struber said after the game, it was something of a growing moment for this young, still-coalescing Red Bulls team. Struber stated that the fixture was always going to be an intense 90 minutes against an experienced rival, and that his players coped with the pressure well even when staring in the face of another dejecting narrow loss.
The Red Bulls will certainly feel the wind behind their sails after the late Patryk Klimala penalty recovered the result at the very last moment, but as it's been for the last several weeks, the team must find a way to create more danger from the run of play if they hope to win at Yankee Stadium.
In what ways would you like to see the Red Bulls improve heading into game two?
More precision and cohesiveness in midfield is key now that the team's defensive personnel have finally stabilized. Ever since June, when Caden Clark went out with appendicitis and Cristian Casseres left for international duty with Venezuela, Struber has struggled to find a consistent group in the middle of the pitch. English youth international Dru Yearwood has been in and out of the team with fitness issues, while early season signing Frankie Amaya has already been banished to the doghouse under similar pretenses. In the meantime, Struber has tried different formations and new personnel (particularly flashy-but-inconsistent Venezuelan teenager Wiki Carmona) to little payoff.
In general, the team has looked quicker and more confident moving the ball when shifting back to the early season diamond midfield formation, and perhaps Struber goes back to relying on such an approach as his squad gets back to full health.
If you were to identify the Red Bulls’ danger-man, who would that be?
After struggling to find consistency following his midseason arrival from Celtic, designated player Patryk Klimala is finally starting to come good on his reported $5 million price tag. The Polish youth international has three goals in his last four games, and has come close with several other audacious attempts. The lean 6-footer has the quick shooting technique and tenacious athleticism of a modern striker, and is starting to become the driving force Thelwell and Struber hoped he would be when they made him their first big transfer splash.
And finally, how do you see Saturday’s game going?
It will be very interesting to see how this new-look team approaches its first game on the unique dimensions at Yankee Stadium in over two years. As mentioned, Struber has become much more of a formation tinkerer in recent weeks, so how he chooses to handle the lack of space will be key.
This Red Bulls team coming off a momentum boost on Wednesday night will come ready to play but perhaps be mistake-prone in a somewhat unfamiliar environment. I know people hate to see draw predictions, but I will say that Saturday's draw could be a high-scoring one.