Even by the lofty standards set forth during the existence of the Metrostars and Red Bulls, this winter ginned up an extraordinary amount of controversy and upheaval.
One thing cropped up after another as the offseason lurched forward. Thierry Henry retired. Tim Cahill left for China. Players came and went. Coaches came and went. Supporters vented their fury about the departure of club icon Mike Petke at a sensational town meeting.
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All of those changes left the Red Bulls to sort through the wreckage and start to rebuild once more. Those efforts reflected fundamental shift within the club itself toward a more prudent mindset. It is not the first time or the tenth time this club has changed course in its history, but it is perhaps the only time where these Red Bulls turned their attention toward the collective instead of a glitzier, sexier option somewhere else down the line.
The decision to build a squad instead of purloin another star or two reflects the reduced budgets allotted by the investor/operators in Austria and underscores the revised template now in place. This Red Bulls side debuts at Sporting Kansas City on Sunday night (7:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go) with a new brief to follow.
"I think it’s obvious that now without — I guess you could say — the big time, international star players that we’ve had in the past, there’s a little bit more onus on everyone to pick their level up an extra 10 or 15 percent," Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty said after a recent training session during the team’s preseason camp. "I think we’ve always kind of been a team that has relied on the brilliance of certain individuals, which, whenever you have guys like that in your team, it is always to be expected. They are the de facto, go to guys. Now I think it’s going to be more of a team approach, more of an approach that we’re going to have to be a team with 11 guys all going in the same direction, making sure that everyone has the right mentality and the right approach."
It is a tack well suited to this group. The emphasis on identifying and obtaining potential core players for the next three to four years this winter resulted in a more cohesive squad, though the lack of assured options in central defense could prove troublesome. The additions of Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins provide McCarty with the support he lacked in central midfield until the now departed Eric Alexander emerged as his partner during the second half of last season. The enduring presence of Bradley Wright-Phillips supplies some of the necessary sharpness for a team that must engineer chances in a wider variety of ways with Henry now manning the punditry desk at Sky Sports.
"I think we have a great group of guys," Kljestan said. "We have a lot of guys who are 27 to 31 years old, who are in the prime of their careers and who are going to be the leaders and the cornerstones of this team over the next three to four years. The winning mentality is there. I think the team mentality is there, most importantly. We need to play games to see how we’ll do. I think a lot of people are underestimating us. And I think we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. I hope we come out of the gates flying and surprise a lot of people."
Opening the season at Sporting Park offers a meaningful measuring stick against another side in the midst of evolution. Sporting manager Peter Vermes ranged the changes during the offseason after his side stumbled through the second half of the season. The fundamental underpinnings and the identity remain the same, but there is more flexibility and more mobility now with Roger Espinoza back in the fold to cover acres of space in midfield.
Vermes and his players spent much of their preseason in Arizona trying to figure out how to make the best use of the new pieces in place. It is a bit of a work in progress now to create more alternatives in the final third, but the injection of more dynamic approach play provides encouraging signs ahead of the new campaign.
In their own way, the Red Bulls plan to follow suit after playing swiftly over the past few years. Incoming boss Jesse Marsch promised a more expansive deportment when he took control. He said he plans to rely on the unit as a whole to pursue the game in possession and share a creative burden long centralized on the inspiration provided by Henry.
"I think we’ve now tried to fill that void with many different voices and many different people," Marsch said. "And they’ve all responded great. I think it’s going to be a strength of ours this year: the mentality of the group and the commitment they have to each other."
It is a thesis poised for rigorous examination in the wake of the busy offseason. The early signs — and the lingering memories of some performances without Henry last year – provide some encouragement. Marsch and his players must now smooth the waters and vindicate this new direction to make all of the tumult worthwhile.