By Sean Hartnett
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Four matches over the span of 11 days will test the Red Bulls’ depth and resolve.
On Sunday, they will host the Philadelphia Union. Three days later, they will have the chance to deliver long-awaited silverware in a U.S. Open Cup final showdown against Sporting Kansas City in KC. Three days after that, they face the Columbus Crew at Mapfre Stadium, and finally they will return home to square off against rivals DC United on Sept. 27.
Talk about a grind.
Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch described the fixture congestion as an “all-hands-on-deck” situation, and squad rotation is very much on his mind. The tricky part will be optimally managing his players’ minutes as games come in fast and furious fashion.
“We’ll need every guy to be as mentally and physically prepared as he can be for the next four matches,” Marsch said. “We’ll definitely have a strategy. This week is going to involve partly preparing for Kansas City and partly preparing for Philadelphia. They won’t be two different groups. There will be overlap. But we’ll come up where exactly guys are at physically and determine who can regenerate and go again and again and again.
“We have to think about how we rotate,” Marsch continued. “I’m trying to figure out how to complement the right players on the field at the right time.”
After serving a one-match suspension due to card accumulation, midfielder Sean Davis will be available for selection against the Union. Given the fixture pileup, his return couldn’t come at a better time.
“We missed him in Chicago, first of all,” Marsch said. “The reality of this business is that when you collect a certain amount of yellows, you have to sit out. It’s never a good feeling, but I think he’s used it to refresh and recharge mentally and physically. One game at a time, but certainly it will be good to have Sean back in the mix.”
Recently, the Red Bulls have struggled to close out victories on the road in Dallas and Chicago. Usually, securing a draw on the road against two teams that excel on home turf is satisfactory. But in the case of the sixth-place Red Bulls, it feels more like four points left on the table than two points gained.
“We’ve gone to two really difficult places, and I think you can take positives and negatives out of both of them,” Davis said. “The positive is we scored first. Obviously, the negative is that we didn’t hold the lead. I think if you look back on the season and you talk about getting a point on the road, you’re usually pretty happy about it, especially in places like Dallas and Chicago, two very good teams. But for us, the standard is very high. We know how important it is to maintain leads. We went through a little stretch last year where we struggled with that. We know that it’s something we need to work on.
“At the end of the day, they’re good experiences for us and we’re growing because of them,” Davis continued. “The most important thing is that we learn from that and that we continue to develop that into our mentality to hold those leads coming into important games like Philly, Kansas City – hopefully the playoffs, too. Important lessons right now. It’s better to get that out of the way now, then later.”
This will be the fourth time the Red Bulls and Union have met in 2017. If all goes well on the recovery front, New York could receive a major boost in the form of a healthy Daniel Royer. The influential Austrian attacker has been reintegrated into full training and is very close to returning to game action. Royer was up to full speed throughout Wednesday’s drills. He received treatment on his knee on Thursday and will be pushed in Friday’s training session to determine if he will be given the green light to return against Philadelphia.
“We’ll push him again on Friday and see where he’s at for the weekend,” Marsch said.
Marsch looks to what he describes as his “leadership council” to show the younger, less-experienced players the way. Captain Sascha Kljestan, star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, defender Damien Perrinelle and ironman goalkeeper Luis Robles are among the most experienced players on the roster.
Kljestan, the man who wears the armband, is certainly a lead-by-example type. The 32-year-old playmaking midfielder prides himself om setting a tone of responsibility and hard work that permeates throughout the squad.
“I think they can see by the way I show up and train every day, whether it was the first day of preseason that I was in or until today – nobody really takes days off here,” Kljestan said. “We’re always pushing each other. As we get towards the end and fatigue starts to set in, we know it’s partially a mentality thing and how you can push yourself through it. I think our young guys have a great mentality, and they’re always going to push themselves through it and ultimately try to push us to the highest level we can reach this season.”
Not long ago, the Red Bulls were a team that was heavily reliant on the performances of their most highly paid star players. Under Marsch’s watch, the atmosphere has shifted to a by-committee approach. He challenges his young players to take on larger slices of responsibility and demands his leadership group to fully buy in to the ideals of his physically demanding, counter-pressing system.
This stretch will be defining for club, coach and players. Should the Red Bulls capture the U.S. Open Cup trophy that has eluded them for 22 seasons, they will have accomplished a franchise landmark because of the all for one, one for all identity that Marsch has cultivated.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey