2022 Red Bulls Season Review: Another Story, Same Ending

Red Bulls John Tolkin

Editorial – You don’t need to think too hard to wonder how the Red Bulls season ended this time around. For the fourth consecutive year, the club was ousted in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs, this time at home. The 2-1 defeat to debutants FC Cincinnati gave everyone a sobering reality. Teams around them, who finished lower than New York in the table, are still dangerous no matter the circumstances. It’s why Pat Noonan’s men were favored going into the matchup, boasting the likes of Brenner, Vasquez, and Acosta. Two of the three scored and are moving on, while the Red Bulls ponder during the offseason.

And there will be lots of pondering, at all levels of the organization. The fanbase is fed up, performances slipped under a manager whose seat will be among the hottest next year. For many, rooting for the Red Bulls has become similar to rooting for Wile E. Coyote to catch the roadrunner. You just never know what’ll go against them, TNT dynamite flowers or ACME packages. It becomes a different story, with the same ending every time. Let’s take a look at the Red Bulls 2022 season.

2022 Red Bulls Season Review: Another Story, Same Ending

Red Bulls Team MVP: Lewis Morgan

Hands down one of the signings of the season. Acquired from Inter Miami for $1.2 million in GAM, the Scottish international was every bit the big money signing the team needed. In all competitions, Morgan scored 18 goals and three assists. An early season hat trick at Toronto FC was a sign of things to come.

He grew into an ever-present attacking threat and at times, the only outlet for a goal-scoring chance. Morgan also showed his tactical versatility playing on the wing in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3, and also playing as a wing-back on multiple occasions. He had a Goal of the Year contender with his volley against D.C. United. His goal against Cincinnati was also brilliant, a rocket from outside the box. It’s a shame he pulled up injured afterward, but it takes nothing away from how great he has been.

At 26, he’s a big building block for their future. But we know how it goes, the allure of Europe and the possibilities of playing international football are there in front of Morgan. He will be enticed to eventually want to leave, and many clubs abroad could use a player of his profile. If there is one area for improvement in his game, it is playmaking and crossing to squeeze out more assists. But make no mistake, Lewis Morgan was sensational in his first season in Harrison and will be the first name on the team sheet to start next year.

Most Disappointing Players: Patryk Klimala and Omir Fernandez

Preseason projections were kind to Klimala and Fernandez. Two young attackers that can impose their game on opposing defenses and create good moments in the final third. It looked fine early on when Patryk grabbed three assists in the 4-1 win at Toronto FC early on. He didn’t get an assist in the regular season for the rest of the year, and would only score six goals from February in all competitions. Once on tap to score in double digits, Klimala finished with six goals and five assists, while going long stretches without recording either. It didn’t get better for Klimala when he was out injured. He saw his minutes decrease and was predictably subbed off for Tom Barlow, then replaced in the starting lineup altogether by loan signing Elias Manoel. It can be argued that the current system in place doesn’t suit his abilities. He was often just alone up top, chasing aimless balls upfield and had no service between himself and midfielders. Just go look at some pass maps. Regardless, Klimala faces a make or break 2023.

As for Omir Fernandez, I had high hopes for him this year. There was some debate over his effectiveness going through the middle as opposed to out wide as a traditional winger. It just hasn’t worked out for him in either place. Just three goals and three assists to finish out the season. Turning 24 next year, it’s becoming apparent that Omir needs to start turning heads or he’ll face an uncertain future. Getting a start in the playoffs was both rare and a surprise to many. He mostly sat on the bench during the second half of the season. It’s possible he could be used in a trade, Omir needs more playing time and can suit some other teams in MLS. From now on, he’ll need to start making the most of his opportunities.

Young Player of the Season: John Tolkin

In my season preview back in February, I had selected attacking midfielder Wikelman Carmona to win this category. Injuries have stifled Carmona which led to him spending the majority of his season in Red Bulls II in USL before making a senior appearance to end the season. John Tolkin is the young player of the season, and it wasn’t close. The 20-year-old built off his stellar 2021 with an even better 2022. A goal and three assists as he became the stalwart at left-back. But it was his defensive prowess that truly caught the eyes this season. He averaged nearly two successful tackles per 90, and led the team averaging over two interceptions a game. In fact, Tolkin finished second in all of MLS with 73 interceptions His 42 chances created were also the most on the team. Tolkin finished sixth in the MLS ’22 Under 22′ list. It all led up to a deserved contract extension. The kid from Chatham, New Jersey is a certified baller with European clubs looking for his signature. The price is only going up, he’ll be one of the players to watch next year.

Best Team Performance: August 31, 1-0 Win at CF Montreal

Red Bull fans knew going into Stade Saputo would be a house of hours. The late-August contest would turn out to be one of the more historic regular season results in recent club memory. New York was without John Tolkin, Patryk Klimala, and Aaron Long who was on the bench. In the end, it didn’t matter as team MVP Lewis Morgan’s first-half chip stood up as the lone winner of the game. The defense held Wilfried Nancy’s team to one shot on target despite having 68% possession. The Red Bulls’ 1-0 win in Montreal was the first time since May 2012. Ten long years, their best team performance of the year.

Worst Team Performance: September 17, 2-0 Loss at NYCFC

The week prior, Gerhard Struber spoke to the media and said the Red Bulls will go to Yankee Stadium and win the Hudson River Derby. Then the match happened, and only one team showed up. Inside the opening minute, Alexander Callens got behind the defense during the second phase of a corner kick to head home the fastest goal in the history of the derby. From then on, it wasn’t a contest. Elias Manoel had a goal overturned by VAR, and the Red Bulls finished with just one shot on target. Santiago Rodriguez added a second as NYCFC swept the season series for the first time, eventually clinching third in the East. Nick Cushing out-managed Gerhard Struber, making him look silly.

What Went Right

Let’s go by the numbers first. The 2022 team finished with more points (53), wins (15), goals scored (50), and better goal differential (+9) than the 2021 team. Their best stretch of form was from April 16 – May 18 when the Red Bulls went eight games unbeaten (4 wins, 4 draws) in all competitions. A double-digit goal scorer in Lewis Morgan, the club’s best signing. Luquinhas was also a welcome addition, and though his form dipped off, he still brings a good dimension to the team. The rise of Daniel Edelman in midfield was great to see, giving the club more depth and showcasing the pipeline of youth that comes from their USL affiliate.

John Tolkin’s great season already has him being discussed among the best left-backs in the league. Andres Reyes will soon be talked about as one of the best young center-backs in MLS and is arguably the club’s best defender already. Aaron Long proved himself to be healthy after his Achilles injury last season, making more than 30 starts in all competitions. Carlos Coronel came on strong in the final stretch of the season with some great saves to keep the Red Bulls in games. Sean Nealis also played well and earned himself a contract extension. And watch out for Serge Ngoma, once he’s healthy, he’ll be another young force. He’s dynamic, takes on opponents, and already has a good eye for goal. Most of these things can carry into the following campaign.

What Went Wrong

This is where we don’t use much of the numbers, but mostly our eyes. This team wasn’t as scrappy as last year. Last year’s team conceded 33 goals and won ugly. Gerhard Struber’s press tried to make games ugly but at times it was a detriment. Their system isn’t designed to control games with possession, which was sorely lacking at times. In their build-up phase, the strikers were either isolated or simply trying to play hero ball.

Creating chances was a real challenge for this bunch, which fed into the opposition passing through them. When the Red Bulls press isn’t firing on all cylinders, they look lost. It’s why the awful results in the summer look the way they do because the heat affected them as much as the opponents getting the better of them. Gerhard Struber was out-coached on occasion, and his substitution patterns were puzzling.

Whenever the Red Bulls took the lead, they rarely built upon it. New York lost 10 points from winning positions in 2022 and lost to FC Cincinnati in the playoffs after taking the lead as well. They simply couldn’t maintain possession for long periods to slow the game down and start attacking sequences. It looked predictable at times that the Red Bulls weren’t going to hold on to leads, which is all on coaching. Not being able to beat either Philadelphia, Columbus or NYCFC hurt their playoff seeding. And of course, the U.S. Open Cup Semifinal defeat to Orlando City will forever haunt fans who saw that 5-1 humiliation. A real chance at a trophy squandered into bits.

One last thing, the transfers. The front office blew a golden chance to bring in more talent to this team. Not being able to bring in a winger or left-back to help left them with almost no depth and no impact subs. Bringing back Kyle Duncan was a desperate move, and you can argue it did more hurt for both parties than help. He ultimately lost his place to Dylan Nealis and is now in limbo over playing time in Belgium. Elias Manoel also felt like a last-ditch effort to bring in a different sort of player to the club. He beat out Patryk Klimala for starting time and scored two goals but wasn’t all that impressive, and the club would be smart to not make that move permanent. Luquinhas started out great, but his form fell off a cliff, and will need to really come on strong in 2023. And hey, remember Tyler Pasher? Enough said.

Where The Red Bulls Need To Improve In 2023

Playing style needs to improve in multiple facets. Whether it’s more possession or better passing moves/sequences, the club must find ways to create more on the pitch. The much-maligned front office must bring in at least five new players. A new striker, new winger, help at both right-back and left-back, and likely a new midfielder. In short, they need plenty and must be busy ringing phones and wooing players. The futures of Aaron Long (contract expiry) and Cristian Casseres Jr (attracting European interest) are evident and will determine how the franchise maneuvers in the offseason.

The home form must also improve. Six home wins out of 17 is not acceptable, no matter who the team is. Much of that comes from how they play and impose their will on opponents. Fans are tired of seeing blown leads or watching the away team score first. There has to be much work done on the training field, similar to when Dragon Ball Z protagonists train at the Hyperbolic Time Chamber.

The New York Red Bulls, making the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season, have had the longest “championship window” in MLS history. That window for an MLS Cup trophy has been closing ever so slowly. And that pendulum can only swing to two extremes: eventually winning MLS Cup or eventually missing the playoffs the way Seattle Sounders have. One thing is for sure, it’s going to be another eventful offseason for the New York Red Bulls.
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