By Michael Lewis
Major League Soccer kicks off its 25th season with an Ohio flavor for the metropolitan area’s favorite teams.
New York City FC starts its sixth season by visiting Columbus Crew SC for a 12:30 p.m. Sunday kickoff while the Red Bulls host FC Cincinnati, which has nowhere to go but up after last year’s disastrous debut season, at Red Bull Arena at 1 p.m. the same day.
One game certainly doesn’t make a season, but it should give us some insight into both squads for the 34-game season.
Every season brings questions for all teams and there are some for City and the Red Bulls. I’ll this though, NYCFC has a leg up on the Bulls.
Let’s start with age before beauty, with the team that has been here for all 25 years, even with a name change (hey, remember, they started out as the MetroStars).
Looking at the roster, you have to wonder if there are enough game-changers on the Red Bulls for the team to reach the postseason for the 11th consecutive season.
For the first time in memory, the Red Bulls enter the season without a big-time name or personality. As you should already know, Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips were released in the offseason and the team did not sign anyone close to them. Ryan Meara, the team’s perennial back-up since his fine rookie season debut in 2012, is expected to get the nod between the pipes over David Jensen.
As to who will replace BWP in starting goal celebrations, it’s anyone’s guess. While there are many ways and formulas to win in this league and, reach the playoffs and win MLS Cup, most teams have a go-to guy up front. At the moment, we don’t see anyone who can do it on a consistent basis, although the Brian White, Tom Barlow and Mathias Jorgensen will put their best feet forward to show they can be the man.
Daniel Royer has established himself as a consistent attacking force on the wing, but a striker who can put away at least a dozen goals is needed if this team is to reach the MLS Playoffs for an 11th consecutive time.
At the opposite end of the pitch, the defense has been rebuilt in goal and on the wings after an absolutely awful season. Meara is in goal and he has proven in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and some MLS regular season matches that he was more than an able replacement for Robles. Gone are outside backs Michael Amir Murillo (right) and Kemar Lawrence (left), both to Anderlecht. Their replacements? Kyle Duncan and James Nealis, among others.
The central pairing of Aaron Long, a U.S. international who has worn the captain’s armband for the red, white and blue, and Tim Parker. Both players need to improve their less than consistent performances for 2020, especially Parker. If Long can return to his form of the 2018 season in which he was MLS defender of the year and Parker to his Vancouver Whitecaps form, the Red Bulls should be in more games and move up the Eastern Conference.
Head coach Chris Armas has plenty from which to choose from a midfield that is solid, although not spectacular. Royer is the most consistent performer of the bunch. If Kaku can put a 2019 season that had too many lows behind him, he can be a force to be reckoned with. Cristian Casseres, Jr., who had a superb performance in the final preseason match, team captain Sean Davis, Marc Rzatkowski, loaner Josh Sims, Florian Valot and Alex Muyl round out the potential starters.
While the Red Bulls desire to develop local talent is admirable, no bringing in any high-profile international talent, at least before the summer transfer window, could cost them points early on and perhaps a playoff spot.
On the flip side, there’s NYCFC, which doesn’t seem to have any, if many, major weaknesses. Sean Johnson once in a while will have a howler in the net, making observers wonder why he is kept being brought into the national team, but has made some big saves when push comes to shove.
If the backline stays healthy — Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot in the middle — and Ronald Matarrita and Anton Tinnerholm on the left and right flanks, respectively, this team could be tough to crack.
Of course, it all starts in the midfield. James Sands, who has played in the middle of the defense, the redoubtable Alex Ring, the team captain who takes no prisoners, Maxi Moralez, an MLS Best XI selection who needs to be kept away from taking penalty kicks at all costs, Valentin Castellanos, Alexandru Mitrita, who could be on the verge of having a breakout season, and Jesus Medina form a formidable midfield. Keaton Parks and Gary Mackay-Steven give new head Ronny Deila plenty of depth there.
If Heber can stay healthy, he can crack the 20-barrier up front. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi is his cover.
Questions about NYCFC isn’t about whether the team can make the playoffs, but whether it can go deep in the playoffs and perhaps win MLS Cup on Nov 7.
That would drive the Red Bulls, who have been frustrated without a championship the past quarter century, simply crazy.