Hot Time: Supporters in New Jersey have seen both the upsides of top-down control (coherent coaching and scouting processes, innovation from within) and the downsides (trading Dax, this year's weird insistence on the 4-2-2-2). How do Red Bulls supporters feel about Ralfball now? Is everyone still on board?
Once A Metro: You don't have to look too hard in Red Bull land to find people who will tell you RalfBall is bunk: Ali Curtis turned up in 2015 with a binder full of fresh ideas; Jesse Marsch invented gegenpressing; RBNY's recent makeover is a function of handing the keys to the club to MLS men with MLS knowledge.
But you have to be willfully blind to a lot of facts, and the statements of the team's leadership, to convince yourself it was mere coincidence that RBNY twinned itself with RB Europe's playing style and overall philosophy back in 2015.
Still, there are some who were never on board with the RalfBall hypothesis to begin with, and never will be. There are differences between a team operating in MLS and coached by Jesse Marsch and one making its way in Bundesliga with Ralph Hassenhuttl on the sidelines. And for those who imagine "RalfBall" to mean Ralf Rangnick faxes lineups and coaching plans to Jesse every week, the differences between the RB teams sustain their argument that all RBNY has in common with Leipzig is a coach who likes high-pressing soccer. To each their own.
That said, even for those who find RalfBall aligns a little better with observable evidence than the notion Ali and Jesse cooked up the RBNY overhaul at a Friday-night Happy Hour in MLS HQ, I think it's mostly irrelevant as long as the team is winning. This year's effort to pivot over to the 4-2-2-2 tested everyone's patience - in large part because it seemed an overreaction to RBNY's problem, which has been losing key games in the playoffs to the predictable tactical response to the way the team has tended to play the last two years. And because the team tried it last year with even worse results (though Jesse insists the 2016 pratfall start was achieved playing 4-3-3 - nonetheless, it was a shift away from an outlier formation in the RB Global Soccer family toward something that looked more like what was being played in Leipzig and Salzburg).
If the Red Bulls had started out 2017 the way they started 2015, with a lengthy unbeaten streak, I'd imagine there would be a lot of praise paid to the 4-2-2-2, and scant attention given to the fact it's a tactical template made famous by RB Salzburg under Roger Schmidt at the beginning of Red Bull's RalfBall era. But the fact the team has had an uneven start to the year inevitably invites some effort to look more closely at what it is doing, and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that we were watching a results-be-damned (see you next year, CCL) movement toward an even closer alignment with RB Global Soccer.
RBNY can duck that charge now with its recent adjustments and re-statement of purpose, and I think the change came about in part because RBNY already knows that fans will more or less rally behind what works. Supporters of the team have been through a lot in recent years: Petke's dismissal, similarly harsh treatment for Lloyd Sam and Dax McCarty, a lot of vague gibberish about a 300-page plan that was never made public or explained fully. But if you think RBNY fans have been volatile, imagine the response if the team hadn't been winning more games than it lost for the last two years.
Soccer is a results business, as everyone seems to say any time the club tramples over the emotions of its fan base. If the results are positive, the decision (or mandate) to be a more recognizable part of the RB Global Soccer family looks inspired: just another successful part of a generally successful project. When results dip, it starts to look like a little like...well, a lesser version of United Airlines' difficulties: few are enthused about an airline that is more interested in its corporate handbook than the business of delivering paying customers to their destinations; few want to watch a losing soccer team, no matter how sophisticated or well-regarded its plans might be.
I think the majority of fans are on board with winning. I think the the players, staff, and even Ralf Rangnick himself share the same sentiment. Call it what you want, but people are on board with RalfBall primarily because it delivers pretty good results on the field. RBNY hasn't really tested the fans' patience with a truly bad season of trying and failing to get RalfBall to work, and I think the most recent adjustments to the team suggest there is no appetite with the club for that sort of experience.
Wins don't make RBNY immune to criticism, but they are the difference between fans bringing themselves and their misgivings to the stadium and finding something else to do with their time at the weekend. And RBNY knows it.
HT: Obviously, if we'd talked two weeks ago the tone of this would've been entirely different. Two-parter: What's been the difference (if any) during the last couple games, and what could the Fire do to turn back the clock to late March for your guys?
OAM: The big difference has been the switch away from the 4-2-2-2. I don't know if there was a little player power exerted behind the scenes, but it was clear the formation took Sacha Kljestan out of his comfort zone. BWP insists he's happy to play anywhere, anyhow, but the 4-2-3-1 suits him better too - if what you want out of him is goals, which we do. Between them, BWP and Sacha account for about a third of the roster's salary budget, so perhaps it is prudent to play the guys you are paying to play every day in the roles they occupied to justify their top-dollar wages.
Kljestan has not been shy about saying the return to the formation that the team has favored for pretty much his entire time at RBNY is better for him. I don't think anyone on the staff has sought to deny that the switch back to what the team knows it does well was motivated by the desire to see it regain some of its former swagger.
Personally, I had thought RBNY might stick with the 4-2-2-2 for this home stand, since playing at home makes such a big difference to any team in MLS and it was a during succession of road games that Red Bulls really seemed to lose their way. But it has been made clear that points are the priority right now, and the squad is re-focused on winning rather than mastering a new shape and tactical outlook.
As Dax McCarty knows well from experience, the way to neutralize the RalfBall era Red Bulls is to play narrow, force the ball into tight spaces, and suck the team into a small-field fight for shooting opportunities in the final third. That opens up a lot of space for counter-attacks, and a game can turn against RBNY very quickly if one or two of those get converted. The 4-2-2-2 was supposed to fix that, but it really just made it worse.
Most teams turn up to Red Bull Arena with some variation of that sit-back-and-counter game-plan, and most teams lose. But get the result they want, including our last two opponents in the play-offs. I expect to see a lot of David Accam sprinting into space on our side of the field. If he wins his one-on-one battles, Chicago might be one of those sides that leaves Harrison happy.
HT: The Return of Dax: Discuss. How will supporters react? Your players? Dax?
OAM: Oof. Well, the supporter reaction might be a little muted by the club's decision to suspend banner-and-smoke privileges for two of the three groups that have them. Prior to that, there was a plan for a Dax tifo, and I'd assume that would have been a sincere greeting, but RBNY has quashed that. The stated reason was a couple of instances of profane signage (ish - one was a scarf) at recent games that were bit too prominently displayed for the club's liking. The SGs think there's a little more to it than that, so we have had a little Dax-troversy in the build-up to his return.
From a distance, I'd expect that to play out as crowd that is broadly and enthusiastically welcoming of Dax, perhaps even after the game kicks off.
For the players: well, they've been in this sort of situation before. Just a couple of weeks ago, we had Lloyd Sam back at the Arena, for example. His departure didn't make the same sort of waves around the league as that of Dax, but he was a popular man with fans and players. I think the team is familiar enough with the consequences of Red Bull's occasionally callous, business-first approach to roster management to just get on with the job.
It will be interesting to see if there's any visible interaction between Dax and Jesse Marsch. Jesse has said he'd like to give Dax a hug. I'm not sure Dax wants that hug. And he has always seemed like a player who will manufacture a grudge for motivation if he needs it. RBNY handed him one big enough to last the whole season, and I think he'll be up for this game as maybe Fire fans have never seen before.
Predicted lineup: (4-2-3-1) Luis Robles; Connor Lade, Aurelien Collin, Aaron Long, Kemar Lawrence; Tyler Adams, Felipe; Alex Muyl, Sacha Kljestan, Daniel Royer; Bradley Wright-Phillips