MLS 2018: Marsch is exuding confidence as Red Bulls prepare for 'neutral' opener

Which version of the 2017 Red Bulls will show up in 2018: sixth-place finishers in the regular season, or playoff warriors who pummeled Chicago, 4-0, in the Knockout Round and harassed eventual champion Toronto FC before losing their semifinal series on away goals?

There’s no doubt in the mind of head coach Jesse Marsch, who in a conference call with reporters painted a very bright picture for the upcoming season that kicks off Thursday with a Concacaf Champions League series against Honduran club Olimpia.

“I feel like we’re ahead of schedule from last year,” said Marsch of the 2017 campaign that started with four losses in the first seven league games. “Guys came in fitter, I think guys understood more about the experience, what the time crunch was. They also understood the urgency that we needed to include in everything we did, every day. It’s never easy to try to throw a lot of elements into a short time frame but I’m really proud of our group and the way they have committed themselves."

Political unrest and violence in Honduras prompted Concacaf to stage the first leg behind closed doors at a neutral venue, the Estadio Nacional in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. They won't play in a hostile cauldron as they would have in Olimpia’s home stadium, yet the Red Bulls are still facing an in-form opponent that has yet to lose in nine league matches.

Olimpia scouting report. “We’ve got to know them pretty well,” said Marsch of extensive video study. “They’re a combative team, they’re a good team, a talented team, so we know we’re in for a big challenge despite the fact we’re not playing in their home environment, which obviously would make things even more difficult.

“Any time you come to Central America, you know you’re going to be dealing with a lot of elements working against you, but we’ll be disciplined, focused and prepared for everything the match can throw at us.”

To reduce travel fatigue and time-zone issues, the Red Bulls left preseason camp in Arizona for Houston, where they trained a few days prior to arriving in Costa Rica Tuesday night. The paperwork for playmaker Alejandro Romero Gamarra (“Kaku”) has been completed and so he’s eligible to play though Marsch indicated his debut might not occur in the first leg. The second game at Red Bull Arena is March 1.

"The system is the playmaker. Kaku is joined by several other newcomers who have arrived in the wake of key offseason departures such as that of Sacha Kljestan, who voiced his displeasure after being traded to Orlando City. As he did a year earlier by trading another former captain, Dax McCarty, Marsch took a risk to rework the roster into a hungry, pressing team more suited to his philosophies. (During the call Marsch announced the coaching staff had chosen keeper Luis Robles as team captain in 2018.)

“We have a player pool that is talented but truly fits what we trying to accomplish as a group,” he said. “We have a saying in Red Bull that ‘The system is the playmaker.’ It’s an easy thing to say but a more difficult thing to achieve. We’ve been really close with a lot of the different teams that we’ve built here to really establish our way of playing.

“We as an organization, as a staff, and as a team, are more optimistic than ever that we have the players to be what we want to become.”

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