The Red Bulls’ new chapter hasn’t started smoothly.
After letting their all-time leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips leave at the end of last season, the Red Bulls attack has floundered in 2020, scoring just seven goals in eight games thus far. Meanwhile, the Englishman has looked reinvigorated for new club LAFC; he’s already scored more times for them (three) than all of 2019 in New York (two).
It’s not absurd that the Red Bulls let an aging striker (now 35) battling an injury walk. But the striker in question is a franchise legend, and another team has seemingly quashed the groin issues used to justify his departure.
“I wish we could have just figured out what my injury was and how we could have solved it earlier,” he said on the Footy Talks podcast in May, per Once a Metro. “That’s how New York was, ‘He’s injured, he’s old.’ Almost, ‘We can’t work with you.’ But [LAFC], they weren’t too fazed by it… The groin, it’s been good for a couple months now.”
The decision to unceremoniously cut Wright-Phillips loose looks especially bad now. Through eight games, only four teams have found the net less than New York (two of those with a game in hand), while coach Chris Armas has already shuffled through five different front-two combinations. You can’t really blame him for rotating so much — his options really aren’t that enticing.
Young strikers Brian White and Tom Barlow have both failed to score this season, while Daniel Royer (top scorer last season) is struggling to produce in a more advanced position up top. Even talisman Kaku was deployed (at least nominally) as part of a strike partnership on Saturday.
While it’s entirely possible BWP’s time as a contributor was finished in New York — and not necessarily elsewhere in a less demanding pressing system — the optics of letting 126 goals walk out the door now look especially poor.
The 1-1 draw against New England showed how badly New York lacks a ruthless finisher. Barlow mismanaged multiple looks in front of goal, while midfielder Ben Mines missed a header from close. These are the types of half-chances where top poachers routinely beat the odds.
Help might be on the way. The club recently announced the signing of Ghanian forward Samuel Tetteh from Austrian club LASK. Tetteh contributed seven goals and five assists in the league last season, and was in training ahead of the club’s match against DC United on Wednesday.
Perhaps he will inject some impetus into a sleepwalking Red Bulls attack. One that is necessary after the departure of Wright-Phillips.
“I think they’re just a little bit too quick to let players go,” Wright-Phillips said.
It’s not a coincidence that NYCFC’s best offensive performance this season coincided with Maxi Moralez’s return to the pitch.
In his first appearance since Aug. 1, Moralez wasted no time pulling the strings upon being subbed on Saturday, registering a crafty assist to Anton Tinnerholm en route to a 3-1 victory over Chicago.
Others took notice of his return.
“With Maxi in front of us, it gives us a lot of confidence,” said midfielder Keaton Parks, who opened the scoring in the game.
“It’s the first time I’ve really seen him injury-free and happy and free on the pitch, and what an impact that was, it was unbelievable to watch,” coach Ronny Deila said.
While Moralez certainly raised the floor of the team, Deila will be pleased with how well others got forward too. Parks was effective driving forward from deep — especially after Moralez’s introduction — and Tinnherholm was superb from right-back, creating seven shot-creating actions (including an assist), according to FBref.com. Moralez’s return plus the other improvements meant NYCFC tallied a season-best 2.5 xG, with the next-best a distant 1.9 on three occasions.
Now, NYCFC has a chance to build some momentum. They’ve already faced every team currently occupying the East’s top four (Toronto, Columbus, Philadelphia and Orlando), but will face sixth-placed New England on Wednesday before struggling DC United (12th place) and FC Cincinnati (10th place).
Those matchups look even better with Moralez running the show.
“He speaks, he organizes, and he works really, really hard,” Deila said. “For me as a coach it’s fantastic to have.. like a second coach on the pitch.”