(Editorial) – As the 2015 winds down, the Red Bulls sit three points clear in the lead spot in the Eastern Conference. It’s a spot that they can clinch with any combination of four points in the standings. Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch and sporting director Ali Curtis have taken their master plan of attitude and analytics all the way to the top of the table in the Eastern Conference. Their destiny is in their own hands- both the Supporters Shield and the Eastern Conference lead are truly theirs to lose. With a favorable schedule ahead of them and games in hand on everyone, New York has the chance to do something very special in Major League Soccer’s 20th season.
McCarty vs Kljestan: Making a Case for the Red Bulls’ MVP
On a roster that everyone has played a role in giving the Red Bulls an opportunity to exceed everyone’s expectations, it’s always hard to pick out which player is most valuable to the cause. Without much doubt, the Red Bulls’ biggest strength has been their midfield play. Since losing four in a row earlier in the year, the Red Bulls have played 16 matches, and have failed to earn a point in only four of those matches. While there have been a couple of questionable moments during that stretch, one thing is clear: The Red Bulls are a force to be reckoned with.
Two major players in the Red Bulls success, and their ability to sustain their high press, are captain Dax McCarty, and Sacha Kljestan. Looking at this stretch starting back in June from an analytical and statistical point of view reveals some interesting points. Both McCarty and Kljestan have compelling cases to be named Red Bulls MVP while playing different roles.
Kljestan: The Creative Brain
— Mario R. (@mromilio) October 4, 2015
It seems that every week since that red card in the Vancouver match, Kljestan’s one mission has been to improve in his role as a central attacking midfielder. This is not a role that he has been accustomed to in the past. Traditionally, Kljestan has successfully played in a more deep lying role as a holding midfielder. Marsch, however, had other plans for his former teammate. After the September 11th match, a 3-2 win over Chicago (Sacha had a goal and an assist in that match), coach Marsch talked about the change in roles for Kljestan. “When he was at Anderlecht he played a deeper role and [was] a lot more tactical player. Now you start to see his creativity and his confidence on the ball. I’ve tried to encourage him to take more touches because I know how smooth he is when he’s on the move and I think his confidence has grown.” In the last 15 matches, Kljestan has scored four goals and has earned 12 assists. Anyone watching the Red Bulls nowadays can tell you that Kljestan’s play has been integral to the Red Bulls attack. To support this, one can take a look at key passes. According to Opta, a key pass is defined as “The final pass or pass-cum-shot leading to the recipient of the ball having an attempt at goal without scoring.” This season, he has averaged 2.5 key passes per match, which leads the Red Bulls. Kljestan currently sits fifth overall in the league in that statistical category. Javier Morales leads the league with 3.3. If there has been anyone that has benefited from Marsch’s high octane press, it has been Kljestan. After the Portland match on September 20th, a 2-0 win that punched the Red Bulls ticket to the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, Kljestan spoke about the questions he had going into the season. “I came to Florida and I sat down and I had breakfast with Jesse and he started drawing out on the field how we were going to play. I had serious question marks in my head. I was wondering ‘wow, is this really going to work?’ There were a lot of questions. Is this going to work? Is it going to work in the summertime? Are we going to get tired? Are we not going to be able to do it for an entire season? I think the way that everyone has bought in and everyone believes in each other and believes in Jesse’s system has paid dividends.” It has been obvious that Kljestan, who’s relationship with Marsch likely helped to seal the deal, has bought into his coach’s system. In the press, he’s been supportive of his teammates and has been integral to the locker room chemistry that has been key in the change of attitude and identity that has taken place. He’s been humble and even critical when it comes to his own play on the field, deferring always to the quality of the players around him. The Red Bulls very much come and go on Kljestan’s whim, and when he is effective, the are extremely difficult to play against. Dax McCarty: The Perpetual Engine
When Dax McCarty was named captain of the New York Red Bulls in the run up to the 2015 season, it came to a surprise to exactly no one. He has arguably been the most consistent player on the squad this season. His work rate is second to none, his leadership on and off the field has been readily noticeable, at times even challenging his own teammates to be better. He learned a lot from playing under Thierry Henry and his leadership skills. Yet he still remains humble and and grounded. His influence over the club is palpable.
In a recent interview with Filip Bondy of the New York Times, coach Marsch revealed that his analytical approach relies heavily on a concept called defensive actions. American Soccer Analysis writer Benjamin Harrison uses a trick to measure a team’s work rate – defensive actions vs passes per 90. When looking at the over all season, Dax is head and shoulders above his teammates using this method of measure.
A quick look at whoscored revealed that McCarty leads the league in average passes per 90 with a whopping 69.6 passes completed per match so far this season. He has been a rock on both ends of the ball, successfully running endlessly and cushioning the backline when needed, and supporting a club that relies deeply on their transition game. In addition to that, McCarty has 3.3 tackles per game, 2.7 interceptions, and 1.4 clearances per game. Make no mistake, he has often been called up to be a 5th member of the backline on many occasions with the Red Bulls high line leaving them open to potential counter attacks. It hasn’t happened often that a club has been able to exploit that weakness. For instance, in Saturday night’s 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew, McCarty was credited with 14 recoveries.
As valuable as Sacha has been to the core of this club, Dax has been carrying the torch of hard work and effort on the Red Bulls since being traded here. When McCarty was named to the 2015 MLS All-Star team, Marsch had this to say, “[Dax] has been a big factor for our success this year. [He] has grown into a real captain and a real leader, and I think for years has been a good player in this league so I’m really happy for him. It will be a big experience for him, and I think he’ll come back from it feeling even more confident, and with more belief in himself. Dax doesn’t struggle with that, but I think it’s always good to play amongst your peers, and be honored amongst your peers, and then in those games, feel the energy of how good the players are on the field.”
McCarty has been the key stone pivot on this club. His connection to the midfield and the backline only enhances the Red Bulls ability to hurt teams with their high press. Both Sacha, with all his offensive creativity, and McCarty with his never-ending dedication, hustle, and skill in his role, have made themselves invaluable on a roster of equal parts.
The story, of course, is not over. The Red Bulls will finish off the season on October 25th, in Chicago. If they are playing for the Supporters Shield that weekend or even MLS Cup on December 6th, one has to figure McCarty and Kljestan both will figure as huge pieces in Marsch’s plans.
Featured Photo: Bill Twomey/Bill Twomey Photography