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Know Thy Enemy: Revs-RBNY Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Edition

Matt Turner versus Florian Valot is the MAAC matchup mid-major watchers in the know deserve.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New England Revolution Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Today is a glorious day to renew a rivalry.

When the New York Red Bulls travel north to face the New England Revolution, we expect to see high energy and at times high emotions in a game that usually one would not describe as beautiful.

However, I am far to excited to see two old conference foes go at each other. That’s right, it’s about time I got to gush about the MAAC on this blog, so that’s what we’re going to do. Today’s key matchup, because we can, is Fairfield Stag keeper Matt Turner vs. Rider Bronc midfielder/winger Florian Valot.

Valot is tied for second on the Red Bulls in scoring and third in assists (3G/4A from 9 GP). Everyone knows BWP handles the scoring and new CAM Kaku has been racking up the assists as well, but Valot is chipping in on the score sheet and when he does, it’s in bunches. He has two games where he’s tallied a goal and an assist in the same game, and it will be up to Turner and the Revs defense to limit not just the RBNY stars, but secondary opportunities as well for guys like Valot and Daniel Royer.

Both of these players have not only crashed into a MLS starting lineup, but they’re both having a couple of the most surprising seasons in the league. Turner has jumped his way over former USYNT starter Cody Cropper and MLS vet Brad Knighton and has deservedly earned MLS All-Star Game talk as well as USMNT talk from his head coach.

Meanwhile, Valot came up through the RBNY II ranks and finds himself producing well in a lineup with young guns Kaku, Tyler Adams, Sean Davis and some guy named Bradley Wright-Phillips. The only downside to this matchup is I might have to boo a Rider man if he finds the scoresheet today.

Anyway, I’ll let our good friend Austin Fido gush about our guy Valot as well. You can check out my answers to Austin’s questions over on Once A Metro.

TBM: Somehow RBNY traded Kljestan, McCarty and Grella and their midfield is still just wicked solid across the board. Talk about your boys Adams and Kaku and my boy out of Rider, Florian Valot and how this group has done so far in 2018.

AF: They’ve all been tremendous so far this season. But I’d maybe single out your favorite, Valot, for the most praise.

Adams is playing himself toward the bright future in Europe that has long been thought to be his due - and seems to be once again allowed to concentrate on being a central midfielder. Last season, RBNY didn’t really adequately cope with the loss of Dax McCarty, mostly because the defense was never quite right. The theory that McCarty was tradeable because Adams was ready to start wasn’t wrong, it just sort of got lost in the scramble to shore up the back line: Adams finished last season as a right wing back in Jesse Marsch’s preferred formation. He’ll surely play that role again a few more times before he leaves RBNY, but he’s an exceptional d-mid for the team and we’ve been seeing the benefit of allowing him to do what he does best.

Kaku has been exceptional too: can’t argue with four goals and nine assists in 13 appearances for RBNY. His near-immediate impact on the team shouldn’t be taken for granted - remember that the Red Bulls’ last seven-figure Argentine, Gonzalo Veron, spent three seasons never quite convincing Marsch he was ready for a starting role. Jesse was cautious with Kaku too - preferring to work with players who were better acquainted with the Red Bulls’ system for the CONCACAF Champions League campaign at the start of this season. But in three months, Kaku has achieved what Veron couldn’t in three years: Marsch trusts him to start every game he can, and you won’t find many (let me know if you find one) RBNY fans who’d complain about Kaku’s place in the lineup.

Sacha Kljestan deserves a lot of credit for what he did for the Red Bulls over the last three seasons, but any consternation about his departure seems to have evaporated. That’s in large part because Kaku has very quickly demonstrated that he’s a positive addition to the squad. The team has long been missing a quick-thinking, technically-gifted play-maker: that’s what Kaku provides. Kljestan, by contrast, for all his many strengths, seemed weakest in the situations that RalfBall most often creates for its attacking players: tight spaces in the final third. So we’re getting something from Kaku that we didn’t really see all that often from Kljestan, and that plus positive results means fans and media aren’t talking about Sacha’s absence from RBNY nearly as much as they debated McCarty’s departure (which did not seem adequately addressed for quite a long time) last season.

But reserve most praise for Valot because he’s not the poster-boy for RBNY’s Academy like Adams, nor is he a big-money signing like Kaku. And he’s forced his way into the first team at the expense of the player many would have considered Marsch’s favorite - Alex Muyl. He brings a little more attacking bite than Muyl has been able to deliver, and that’s why he keeps getting starts. And he’s beaten out flashier players along the way. If you’d asked me which attacking player from the 2016 USL Cup winning II-team would emerge as a regular starter for RBNY in MLS, I’d have said Derrick Etienne or Vincent Bezecourt - and they have both had (and will keep getting) chances to break into the line-up. But Valot has seized his opportunity and isn’t letting go for now.

TBM: Five games unbeaten (4-0-1) after a scoreless draw in Philly last week, the offense might get the headlines with BWP but the defense has been very stingy as well early on. Please teach New England the complete ways of the press and playing offense and defense at the same time.

AF: It has been a very enjoyable run - long may it continue. But I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest the Red Bulls have mastered their system just yet: Philadelphia could and should have scored last week. But all teams need a little luck to put a good run together - as we witnessed earlier this season in CCL, when Chivas had it and RBNY did not. And, of course, it is often suggested that successful teams make their own luck. So I suppose that’s the best advice one could offer New England: stick to your principles and - by accident or design - be lucky.

But you’re right: the defense has been a huge part of RBNY’s positive start to 2018, just as it was a very significant part of the team’s struggles in 2017. It’s mostly down to personnel for me. I’d argue that the Red Bulls haven’t had a settled back four - a dependable first-choice unit that knows what it has to do and can do it well, individually and collectively - since Jesse’s Shield-winning debut season with the club in 2015. And I’d argue that this year’s unit is better - man for man, and as a whole - than the 2015 group.

The way the team wants to play inevitably throws up multiple breakaway opportunities for its opponents. Tactics and competent defending from every player on the field is an important part of limiting the number of those opportunities, but they are going to happen regardless and so the back line is an extremely important to the team’s fortunes. RBNY wants to score first and the score again: it’s not really cut out for playing a waiting game, or wearing an opponent down with possession. As such, the system can be brutal for our defenders: they are routinely asked to put out fires, often in situations where the the back line has broken down. This means we often ship goals that are attributed to one player’s failure to make a tackle or cut out a pass - and when things go wrong, that can quickly lead to one player being identified as the source of the entire team’s misfortune. All of which means the back line has to be mentally and physically up for the challenge: the system requires our defenders to handle a lot of pressure, and sometimes a lot of criticism - it will simply crush players who can’t accept that.

So far this year, most of RBNY’s personnel decisions have worked out very well. Tim Parker is playing like he grew up in the Red Bulls Academy (he didn’t). Aaron Long was the team’s best defender last year and is playing better now than I think he ever has for RBNY before. Amir Murillo hasn’t really looked back since he nailed down his first-team place last season. And Kemar Lawrence is the best left-back in MLS when he’s fit and in form - and he’s been both for most of the season to date.

Yes, there was a very deliberate effort in the off-season to make the roster younger and the team’s playing style more dynamic. Yes, that has paid off so far this year. Yes, Marsch doesn’t let anyone near the starting lineup if he doesn’t think they can do their job on both sides of the ball (hence Kaku’s absence from much of the CCL campaign). But mostly, I think Jesse is enjoying the fruits of a three-year hunt for a back line that can deal with the particular challenges of RBNY’s system. His next test starts with this game: call-ups and the crowded schedule (assuming the team gets the USOC run it doubtless is hoping for) mean squad depth will be thoroughly tested this summer, at just about every position. We saw encouraging signs that there’s more to this squad than it’s first-choice lineup during the CCL run, when the Red Bulls effectively used a B-team for MLS games. Now we’ll find out a little more about the depth of the Red Bulls’ newfound defensive resilience.

TBM: Speaking of defense, Luis Robles’ Ironman streak ended last week, what’s his status for returning and how did RBNY look with Meara in net?

AF: I’m not expecting to see Robles back in goal just yet, though I also wouldn’t necessarily expect RBNY to make a big announcement about his return to the lineup - Jesse is fond of a surprise when he gets the opportunity. Robles will return to the field at some point, but I think the end of the Ironman streak has relieved any pressure there may have been to patch him up quickly and get him back out there. Marsch has said he expects Robles to play in (at least) one of the team’s three games in the next seven days (Revs on June 2; NYCFC in US Open Cup on June 6; Columbus on June 9). My hunch is he’ll either play the USOC match or in Columbus. If you have a player with a fragile knee, it’s prudent to let them sit out a visit to Gillette, and the effects of a crowded schedule won’t really start to impact the squad until after this game.

More substantively than whatever cosmetic concerns about prolonging the streak built up over the last six seasons, RBNY need be in no hurry to get Robles back on the field because Meara has been playing well. He’s conceded one goal in two starts - and it would have been hard to fault him if he’d let a few more in than that. He’s had some good fortune over the last couple of games (CJ Sapong flubbed a PK last week), but he’s also made mostly good decisions and pulled off some improbable saves when he’s had to. But for his reflexes, Atlanta would have run away with a game the Red Bulls ended up winning 3-1: he kept the team in that match and set the stage for RBNY to claim three points on the road.

Of course, we ought not to be too surprised by Meara’s ability. He was RBNY’s starting ‘keeper before Robles even signed with the club; but for injury, it’s possible - perhaps probable - that Meara would have back-stopped the Red Bulls for the entire 2012 season (and beyond) and the MLS Ironman would never have joined the team. But Meara did get injured, as did his replacement - Bill Gaudette - and the rest is league history. Still, six years ago Meara looked eminently capable of being RBNY’s starting ‘keeper for the long term, and he’s basically spent the time since proving he can get back to that level. If he hadn’t been able to convince anyone that he was still a starting-caliber MLS ‘keeper, he’d have departed RBNY a long time ago.

The fact Meara has stuck with RBNY for so long, despite very limited starting opportunities, has long suggested that he’s the presumptive successor to Robles. With the Ironman streak over, it would be no great surprise if the Red Bulls rotate starting keepers more regularly than in the past: in part to prolong Robles’ career, and in part to satisfy themselves and Meara that his future lies in Harrison. The current string of starts is out of necessity and it’s hard to imagine Meara supplanting Robles as the team’s first-choice ‘keeper this season. But I suspect we’ll now see a lot more of Meara in goal for RBNY this year than in seasons past, regardless of Robles’ fitness.

As it happens, the incident that ruined Meara’s 2012 and initiated a long and frustrating (for him - surely) period of injury and re-injury - that career-derailing moment happened at Gillette Stadium. Kelyn Rowe’s clumsy enthusiasm precipitated the collision that pitched Meara into a lengthy exploration of the sports medicine facilities of New York and New Jersey. There’s no reason to believe Meara has been dwelling on that moment, but it’s a curious twist of fate that his first real run of games as RBNY’s starting ‘keeper since 2012 includes a visit to the place where he ended his last stint as the Red Bulls’ #1.

Lineups/Injuries/Predictions/Etc.

Injuries, call-ups, and a looming mid-week USOC game will force Marsch to shuffle his lineup for this match. How extensively he does so is the main question. My guess is he won’t pull all the starters, though maybe the likes of BWP will get subbed out early so they are ready to go again in USOC in mid-week. Tim Parker and Tyler Adams are away with USMNT; Amir Murillo and Fidel Escobar are prepping for the World Cup with Panama. Kaku has recently been cleared to play for the Paraguay national team, and will head off to join his new teammates shortly after this game - which suggests he’s likely to play the full 90 for this one.

Predicted Lineup: Meara; Lawrence, Collin, Long, Lade; Davis, Valot; Royer, Kaku, Etienne; BWP

Predicted Score: I’m thinking this will be a difficult game for RBNY, not least because I suspect the club has more than half an eye on the upcoming USOC game against NYCFC. On the road, under-powered, and maybe thinking there’s a more important match around the corner: seems like the ingredients for a loss to me. 2-1 to the Revs.