After a long offseason of changes and the recent Designated Players added during the summer transfer window, the New York Red Bulls have quickly developed into one of Major League Soccer’s elite teams.
They are a strong contender for the MLS Cup and their resurgence makes Saturday’s first-matchup with defending champion Real Salt Lake huge.
However, the game will become an even tougher task for a club trying to prove that they are legitimate contenders—not just headline heroes—as the Red Bulls will be without four starters, making them a very different team.
Midfielders Rafael Marquez and Dane Richards, defender Roy Miller, and goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul will all miss the match because they were called-up to the national teams for the next set of FIFA International dates.
Marquez, Mexico’s captain for the past three World Cups and has earned 95 caps, was selected to play in the September 4th friendly against Ecuador and the September 7th match versus Colombia.
The team’s third designated player, Marquez has been a calming force in the Red Bull’s midfield, and he will be missed. He has provided good possession, good passing and vision, and great service from free kicks, not to mention his crackling goal against Toronto FC in a 4-1 Red Bulls victory.
Richards is a player who has benefited greatly from the acquisitions of Marquez and Thierry Henry. The two attract a lot of attention on the ball and have great field vision, which leads to a lot of open space for the speedy Richards to run into and receiver brilliant passes, which he has capitalized on.
The Jamaican International was at the beginning of the season a target of criticism from fans, but he has turned it on as of late with his latest heroics coming in the form of a goal and assist in New York’s 2-0 victory of San Jose.
The Red Bulls and its team’s fans aren’t the only ones who have noticed his impressive play as of late. Jamaica called him in for the team’s game August 11th when he scored his first international goal, and has recalled him for the matches on September 5th against Costa Rica and September 7th versus Peru.
Miller was signed in the offseason and has been a good contributor to a much-improved defense. He has played in 19 games, mostly at left-back, and his pace out wide and his ability to overlap and get involved in the attack while still being organized enough to get back and defend have been a welcome addition to the squad.
He will play for Costa Rica September 3rd against Panama and September 5th versus Jamaica.
Coundoul, with his agility and acrobatics, has seven shutouts this season and leads MLS in saves with 76. He has his moments of less-than-stellar play but overall he has played very well for the Red Bulls. Senegal will rely on him for their Africa Cup of Nations qualifier September 5th against the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These players are key contributors for New York and they will be sorely missed. However, championship-caliber teams can rely on their depth for instances like this and the Red Bulls bench has been productive this season.
There are a variety of possibilities for how the Red Bulls can respond; they have a versatile group of players who have been featured at multiple positions on the field.
The most obvious replacement will be Greg Sutton for Coundoul. Sutton is the only other keeper on the roster and played in his place August 11th against Toronto when Coundoul had been selected to play for Senegal.
In that game, his only regular season appearance, Sutton shutout Toronto and helped the Red Bulls earn three points.
In place of Marquez, look for Backe to go with Seth Stammler.
One of the longest tenured Red Bulls on the squad, Stammler had started the game before Marquez arrived and in his place August 11th when he was called in for another Mexico exhibition match.
A defensive-minded player, the team might play a little conservative in an effort to gain points on the road with a depleted lineup. Stammler would provide good coverage in the back while still allowing promising rookie Tony Tchani to spring forward and connect with Henry and Juan Pablo Angel.
While Richards was missing, Macoumba Kandji was playing on the wing.
The young and raw, yet inconsistent Kandji lost his starting spot when Henry arrived on the scene.
He has been watching and learning from Henry and Angel, two highly skilled forwards. Kandji is admittedly unfamiliar with the midfield position, but is eager to get on the pitch and the Red Bulls could use his speed and his appearance as another offensive weapon.
Miller’s absence is the one that leaves the most possibilities for someone else to step in. Many fans may be calling for the return of favorite Mike Petke to the starting eleven. However, Petke would only be available to play center back and the defense would have to be further broken apart.
In a lineup that will see a lot of shake-ups, finding some consistency—something that was never present in previous head coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s regime—is important.
The central tandem of Carlos Mendes and Tim Ream has been exceptional. They have anchored a defense that has allowed only two goals in five August matches. Those two will stay in the lineup, leaving Petke on the bench again.
Coming in should be midfielder/defender Danleigh Borman. He has appeared in 16 matches, started 11, and is seventh on the team in minutes played.
While there is a lot of movement going on for such a big match, there are two things that should keep the organization and its fans happy.
One is that workhorse midfielder Joel Lindpere has declined any Estonia National Team call-ups for the remainder of the season, stressing the importance of being with the Red Bulls on their quest for the team’s first championship.
The other thing is that Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel are healthy and will both be starting against Real Salt Lake. The best forward tandem in MLS will put the pressure on Salt Lake’s defense, possibly even hiding some of the vulnerabilities of the rest of the makeshift squad.
The Red Bulls would have loved to trot out their complete lineup to strut their stuff against the reigning champions, but that is not the case. It still is an important fixture, and the team is still talented enough however, to compete and earn at least a point.