The Red Bulls and System Soccer

By Paul Gardner

You have to wonder -- is Dax McCarty looking to leave the Red Bulls? His postgame comments after the Bulls lost their playoff series to Columbus certainly invite that thought. He told the New York Post: “We just didn’t play well the entire series. We were outplayed, out-hustled and out-coached.”

Out-coached? A direct criticism of Jesse Marsch, and not at all the sort of thing one usually hears from players. Actually, McCarty seemed to be in a thoroughly gloomy mood as he hadn’t a good word to say for his team: “We just weren’t good enough. We didn’t deserve to advance ... Columbus deserved to win. They were the better team.”

Which is true -- despite those final few hectic minutes as the Bulls sought, and came so close to getting, the goal that would have sent the game to overtime.

McCarty’s bitterly honest assessment is to be commended. Sadly, it lacks a hard look at the source of the Bulls’ problems. To complain, as McCarty did, that “We had no ideas in the final third,” is missing the point. All season long, the Red Bulls have given no evidence of being a team that “has ideas.”

Where would they come from? One would expect them to begin in the midfield. Where there will be -- where there certainly ought to be -- a creative player, a playmaker, a maestro, a brain who will give the team its attacking personality.

So we can forget that possibility at once. There is no such player on the Red Bull roster (the new signing, the Argentine Gonzalo Veron, may fill the role, but little has been seen of him so far). It’s worth pointing out that the other three teams in the semifinals all have such a player -- Columbus has Federico Higuain, Portland has Diego Valeri, and Dallas has Mauro Diaz. All of them Argentine, as it happens.

The Bulls have a South American midfielder, the Brazilian Felipe. Not that you’d recognize him as a Brazilian player -- he is used, it seems, more for his defensive contribution (too frequently physical) than for any so-far unrevealed Brazilian artistry he might have.

Into the creative breach steps, of all people, Dax McCarty. Just how anyone -- specifically coach Marsch -- can view McCarty as a midfield leader needs more explaining than I can manage. Basically a holding midfielder, McCarty is a dynamo, with plenty of energy and effort but average ball skills -- and really not a great deal more to offer.

He left college after two years at North Carolina, but he has never left college soccer behind. He still looks and plays like a college player. As a role-playing defensive midfielder, that may be enough -- someone who harries opponents, who gets in the way, who tackles, who intercepts, who wins the ball ... and then what? He should then pass the ball to someone creative, the very player(s) the Bulls lack. And so McCarty, by default is forced into a creative role that he cannot fulfill.

McCarty has told us that no player works harder than he does to improve his game. That may well be so, but I think he knows that, at age 28, the only improvement he can expect is in being more experienced, and that is not something you work on. He has the aura of a self-made player, one without the luxury of natural talent, who has always had to work hard to create Dax McCarty the player.

A couple of examples of self-made players come to mind -- Kevin Keegan and Jurgen Klinsmann. Both effective players, in limited roles, but both memorable for the tremendous effort they put into their play. Neither could ever be mistaken for a smooth or elegant player. With this sort of player, nothing looks easy.

And that is McCarty, always stretching and straining, often moving with an awkwardness that is alien to the born soccer player.

To use McCarty as the key midfielder, to make him the team captain, is to invite a team to play in his image. And that is what the Red Bulls have been doing all season. McCarty’s “no ideas in the final third” is thus only part of the story. For most of the season (and all of 2014) the Bulls were actually doing pretty well up front, even without ideas, because they had Bradley Wright-Phillips in superb scoring form.

But that form has stuttered lately. Without it, some sort of constructive, flowing, attacking team-play is needed, and the Bulls, with a pedestrian midfield, lacked that. Just one goal -- a ragged, scrambled affair -- was scored against Columbus.

McCarty -- in another critical reference to coaching – commented, “We had a new system, new coach and new players ... but for me, the playoffs feel like a failure.”

A new system. I do not know what that system is supposed to be. I have heard Marsch, on several occasions, use phrases like “what we’re trying to do” and “how we want to play,” but without explanation.

A system that relies on McCarty being played wildly out of position and in a role that is beyond him, and needs an extraordinary run of goalscoring from Bradley Wright-Phillips sounds anything but systematic.

But this damn “system” permeates official Red Bull talk. Here’s a hint as to its meaning from sporting director Ali Curtis: “We're a very high-pressing team so it's important that we have a lot of players on our team that can cover a lot of ground.” Runners, then. Heck, we’re back to college soccer. Is marathon running a prime requirement, I wonder? It may just be. Here’s Curtis again on the type of players sought: “They're team-oriented, they're driven, they're creative, they cover a lot of ground ...” That sounds a lot better, except that I can’t find much evidence that the creative aspect has been much respected.

Marsch and Curtis hint at new signings. In the meantime there is Gonzalo Veron -- signed as a Designated Player over three months ago, who has seen remarkably little playing time. He is acclimating, it seems, “learning our system” according to Curtis.

Maybe Veron is the midfield artist the team needs -- someone who would give it a much more attractive -- and effective -- personality, and who would allow McCarty to use his formidable energy where it can help most, in a clearly defined holding midfielder role. Assuming that he wants to be back next year.

13 comments about "The Red Bulls and System Soccer ".
  1. Kenneth Barr, December 1, 2015 at 8:20 a.m.

    It is dangerous to read too much into the comments of a player immediately after suffering a loss. Having said that, McCarty is the type of player that every club needs. He's a solid club professional who works hard. Back in the day at Crystal Palace, that would describe the likes of Phil Barber and Alan Pardew. However, given that Sacha Klejstan is nobody's idea of a top flight creative midfielder, Red Bull needs to find that quality if it is to take the next step up from being Supporter's Shield holders to MLS Cup/US Open Cup winners.

  2. Nicholas Concilio, December 1, 2015 at 10:26 a.m.

    How is this article written without any mention of Sacha Kljestan? He is supposed to be NYRB's creative midfielder, not McCarty. That this article appoints McCarty as a #10 is inexplicable, but PG has never lets facts get in the way of a good rant.

  3. Gus Keri, December 1, 2015 at 11:56 a.m.

    This is a very bad article. I have never seen PG mis-analyzing a team and a player like that before. I bet he wrote it immediately after the loss. He probably was very upset at the loss.

  4. beautiful game, December 1, 2015 at 12:07 p.m.

    KB, good analysis.

    NC, Kljestan is not a DP player; never will be. Does he make things happen, not at all.

    So how would u describe Mccarthy? Some bloggers in the past suggested him for the USMNT. Paul is correct, he's a college type runner and defender.

    Ali Curtis: “We're a very high-pressing team so it's important that we have a lot of players on our team that can cover a lot of ground.” Covering a lot of ground without purpose and coordination only works in the MLS.

  5. Nicholas Concilio replied, December 1, 2015 at 3:21 p.m.

    Never said that Kljestan was a DP nor that McCarty was of national team caliber. I agree with you that Kljestan is a mildly talented, inconsistent midfielder who is basically useless in the final third of the field. My point was that no one (except for PG) considers McCarty a #10. If PG were to pen an article about NYRB's creative midfielder problem, the subject should have been Kljestan, not Dax.

  6. Allan Lindh, December 1, 2015 at 4:09 p.m.

    McCarty is a #10 by default, and his comments make clear that he understands he doesn't have the talent for the position. On the other hand he works his butt off, remembers to pass the ball to his own team mates, and with him in the #10 role, they won the Supporters Shield. Almost every team in the world needs a better creative mid, Red Bulls included. If they sign a real #10 -- odds are against them, since everyone in MLS is trying -- McCarty will go back to his natural holding position, and they might win the SS again.

  7. Shaun Howe, December 1, 2015 at 5:32 p.m.

    Wow, what a negative article. Either this grumpy reporter really dislikes Dax or there was nothing better to write about. With that said, how about a positive article on one of the teams that won?

  8. don Lamb replied, December 2, 2015 at 9:08 a.m.

    I don't mind the negativity really. What bothers me is that -- like many others here have pointed out -- the article is entirely off base. Everything from reading too much into the player's quote to mis-analyzing his role on the team is just incorrect.

  9. Ric Fonseca, December 1, 2015 at 8:30 p.m.

    Your comments on Klejstan are very spot on! Many times I thought I saw him, but then he disappeared during the game. He really isn't that quality of a player, and when he was with - which team was it, Galaxy or chivas? I forgotten, well, then that is why he seems to fade as a game progresses. As for PG's, another seemingly senseless article, yes, he was pissec 'cause his NY team lost. Oh, and hey, tell Kljestan to shave that bigote, looks silly as the Mario Brother character.

  10. beautiful game, December 2, 2015 at 5:38 p.m.

    NC, I totally agree on your response.

    AL, you're right, Dax is a holding defensive MF and why the staff puts him in a #10 slot has no reasoning.

    SH, what was so positive about the Crew; the missed solid scoring chances and a defensive mote in the second half with turnovers galore. They stunk and the RB couldn't take advantage of it because they too lacked efficacy.

  11. Fire Paul Gardner Now, December 4, 2015 at 1:24 p.m.

    This is the biggest pile of garbage I've ever read on this site and that's saying a lot considering that Paul Gardner writes a regular column here.

    Dax plays as a holding midfielder and is arguably the best one in MLS. Kljestan is this team's #10 to the extent he has one. I think he's as least close to the level of the other #10s you mention, although no doubt his not being from Argentina negatively affects this author's opinion of him. I'm also not sure what the author it talking about with his criticism of high pressing as though that tactic was invented in college soccer. In any event, this brainless team with no ideas sure did pretty well for itself, winning the supporters shield, scoring the most goals in the league, and reaching the last 4 of the MLS playoffs. As a RBNY season ticket holder, I'll take more seasons of such "idea free" soccer happily.

  12. Dennis Mueller, December 4, 2015 at 1:40 p.m.

    Paul Gardner is just doing his usual bit, claiming that the soccer is boring because there not enough Juans and Pedros on the field. In fact the Red Bull scored more goals than any other team in MLS this year, they routinely had better possession than their opponents and it was those opponents who could manage enough creativity to pass out of high press, only teams who were content to counter with long balls seemed to enjoy much success against them.

  13. Scot Sutherland, December 7, 2015 at 1:47 p.m.

    As always, PG creates conversations. I mostly agree with the notion that the NYRB lack final third creativity. I would have been nice to see if Petky could have done something different, but I expect NYRB are a system team, managed by a system coach in which creative players that can make plays are sublimated into the systematic whole. Works for regular season, but not for championships.

    Listening to LA Galaxy for years, the same comment keeps surfacing. Winning means making plays. Having players that can make plays, like Diego Valeri did in the MLS Cup final.

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