Non-Gameday is here again! We’ve got another chance to get a look at the squad today as SKC face off with New York Red Bulls in the Desert Diamond Cup. I got with Austin Fido from over at Once A Metro so we could pretend the season has started already.
Here are your Three Questions But Really Six
We ask them...
1) The Blue Testament: Give us a quick run down of the offseason changes to NYRB.
Austin Fido: Quick, you say?
Let's see: captain Dax McCarty got flung out to the Fire for a bundle of GAM; sporting director Ali Curtis is also gone, after a month-long silence we assume was spent teaching RBNY just how hard it is to negotiate with him; last year's starting right back, Chris Duvall, was poached in the Expansion Draft; starting center back Ronald Zubar tired of contract wranglings and opted to head back to France. Those are the most significant personnel changes.
In their place, we're mostly promoting from within this season. Sean Davis will take McCarty's place in the lineup. Looks a lot like Aaron Long - USL Defender of the Year in 2016 - has hands on a starting CB spot, mostly because he's fitter than the other options at the moment. Right back seems to be Sal Zizzo's to lose for now. And our new signings are young players from our Academy or rookies just out of school (high school in the case of teenage CB Hassan Ndam). We'll have a Panama international in the mix soon too: Amir Murillo is a 21-year-old expected to challenge for that up-for-grabs start at right back. Oh, and it seems very clear this is Jesse's team now: whoever gets appointed to replace Curtis will be regarded as subordinate to Marsch, at least initially.
Finally, the club is having a second go at getting a 4-2-2-2 (watch much Bundesliga? It's RB Leipzig's preferred formation) going. That means Gonzalo Veron is back in favor as the man to partner BWP up top.
So it's a peculiar off-season because a lot has changed, but the team has also mostly stayed the same. Our starting lineup seems likely to be almost entirely familiar faces, there really hasn't been a star-signing to energize the fan base, and even the new formation is a long-term project that had to be shelved for a bit last season because RBNY was threatening to be out of the playoff race by the end of May.
Somehow, RBNY is simultaneously in flux but also patiently following a plan that has been in place since 2015.
2) TBT: Is NY fit and prepared for CCL action? Is it title or bust?
AF: Well, the guys you would think of as our key players - Luis Robles, Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips - have played two preseason games together, and only landed in camp around the beginning of February (international duty and paternity leave kept them out for a bit). There are injuries all over the squad, many of which we don't know too much about. Alex Muyl, for example, got a knock about three weeks ago and hasn't been seen since.
The players are prepared in the sense they know this new formation, more or less - they spent most of last preseason playing it. And they know each other. And fitness levels are adequate, perhaps even good for this time of year. CCL ready? If they were playing a Liga MX opponent, I'd be worried for them. But we get to play the Whitecaps in the quarterfinals - and I think the team is ready for Vancouver. Don't know that the team is necessarily better than Vancouver right now, but I'm not worried about the blow-out that might happen if we were due to play an in-form, fully fit, top-flight Mexican club next week.
When you say "title or bust" - you mean, MLS Cup? Marsch won't get fired for a poor CCL, but he will get a lot of flak from fans - justifiably, but nothing that should be fatal to his role as head coach. But this might well be a Cup-or-bust year for him. It's suspected he is somehow the cause of Ali Curtis' departure, and he has been identified as the driver of the decision to trade away the captain by Dax McCarty himself. He doesn't have a lot of cover: he's heading into this season with the team he wants, the signings he's been able to get absent whatever Curtis might have offered toward that effort.
I think any trophy will be a good enough return for the season, but there will be a lot of well-deserved second-guessing of the decisions made during this off-season if RBNY isn't red-hot in the playoffs at the end of the year. We don't know exactly how Marsch is viewed by Papa Red Bull, but one gets the sense he is respected within Red Bull Global Soccer, so maybe his RB career doesn't end in NY. But it will be hard to sell another year of Marsch as RBNY head coach if this season ends Cup-less after so many bold and surprising decisions were made at the start of it.
3) TBT: With most starters being rested, who are some players we should be keeping an eye on?
AF: We're not yet 100% sure who is in Arizona, though we know (or at least expect) the starters have all returned home to prep for Vancouver. There are maybe three or four open slots in the CCL 18 that might be handed to some unexpected candidates, but maybe this game gets used to audition for those slots.
Of the players I am expecting to be playing this game, I think Zeiko Lewis - our top draft pick this year - might be the one who put most eyes on himself. He has been quiet for us in preseason so far, but that is to be expected. With the top tier of players away, this should be a chance for him to get a longer run as part of the attack.
Teenage center back Hassan Ndam is a player RBNY has been scouting since 2015 - that speaks to his talent and potential, but we really don't have much idea how close he might be to playing first team soccer. He was a high school player last year (for Montverde Academy in Florida), so it's assumed he has a lot of learning to do still.
Arun Basuljevic is a rookie midfielder tipped for a big future. When he was signed, it seemed like a lot of senior players - who have trained with him - applauded the decision. He might be on a quicker path to the first team than we imagine, but this game should be a chance to really gauge his current level.
I'd also keep an eye on the overall formation and tactics. The team will likely be coached by NYRB II's John Wolyniec. The II team is more ideological than the first team: results don't count for as much and so there is a more rigid adherence to the tactical ideas driving Red Bull soccer. As such, the II team functions almost as the prototype for the first team: it signals what RBNY would like to be doing, if it didn't have to worry about getting points every week.
They ask us...
1) Once A Metro: What do you think SKC needed to do this off-season, how close is it to being done?
Cody Bradley: This off season went pretty well - for me and for most of SKC nation, I think. The obvious thing everybody wanted was a winger to provide more offensive firepower. The void left by Krisztian Nemeth had still yet to be filled as Brad Davis and Justin Mapp proved to be failed experiments. This comes via Gerso Fernandes. He is the DP winger we've been waiting for, although Vermes downplays that label. It was a matter of circumstances that lead to that DP status, but he will talk with even more excitement about newcomers Latif Blessing and Illie Sanchez. Blessing is another speedy winger just 20 years old, and at 19 he led the Ghanian league in scoring. Sanchez is a 26 year old from Spain that will provide depth in the midfield. Vermes shored up the midfield and the attack, but if there is a knock on the off season it is the lack of a defensive acquisition. Homegrown local kid Erik Palmer-Brown is back from a loan to Porto B, but one injury to a CB and the options will become quite limited.
I think the team is basically set and I would be surprised to see anything big happen for a while. Although PV is always searching and will take any player they like when given an opportunity.
2) OaM: RBNY will be fielding a second team due to CCL commitments, but what sort of lineup should we expect from KC - and who should we be excited to see play?
CB: We should see just about everybody on the SKC roster and their brothers as well. Dwyer and Besler and still rehabbing from surgeries so they may see even more limited time than the rest. But most of the starters will be given a half and then we'll see backups and some Swope Park Rangers as well. We, as Sporting fans, are excited about Blessing whom I mentioned already. But hopefully that means you guys shouldn't be. He is insanely fast and will definitely be someone to watch on the wing. Gerso (or #Gershow, if you will) has already shown a bit of flash this pre-season. He will be on the other wing, with pace for days to match. Sanchez plays a less glamorous role but keep an eye on him because he might be challenging for Soni Mustivar's starting spot at holding mid.... and Soni is great! Another fun player is Soony Saad. He is back in KC after being sent off to Thailand for a couple years. He's very hungry to score and has absolutely insane power behind his shots.
3) OaM: Apart from the result, what is a positive outcome for KC from this game? What does the team want to get out of this scrimmage?
CB: Positive outcome is simply to get minutes under their belt. We need Dwyer to get game-speed minutes as he recovers, and if he could see the ball go in the net that would be perfect. I'd like Latif Blessing to prove to Vermes that he is ready to start in this league. In turn, I'd like to see Graham Zusi continue to work in the system as an outside back (but he will get used all over this year). Those two things would help set up this team very nicely. Another hope is that Jimmy Medranda shows up with some quality minutes. He was primary getting used at left back last year, but he's got a lot of quality and if progresses enough he could be very dangerous in the midfield for KC this year.