HARRISON, N.J. — How will the New York Red Bulls replace XXXX in the midfield this season?
It’s a question that’s been posed in each of the last two preseasons after the trades of then-captains Dax McCarty (to the Chicago Fire) and Sacha Kljestan (Orlando City SC). As the club gathered for its annual Media Day at Red Bull Arena Monday, it was again the biggest question for a team that returns virtually everyone from last year’s record-breaking Supporters’ Shield campaign.
How do you replace Tyler Adams in the midfield?
It’s been the refrain since Adams transferred to RB Leipzig just after the 2018 season.
The simple answer is by playing Red Bulls soccer.
“They always say that, ‘How do you replace someone that’s gone?’ It’s a little bit of worry it sounds like to me,” Bradley Wright-Phillips said. “The best player is the system.”
The talk of Adams joining Leipzig started in 2017 and only intensified when former coach Jesse Marsch left New York to join Leipzig’s coaching staff midway through the 2018 season. When the technical staff met and checked out the depth chart, there was no rush decisions or even a concern to test the transfer market.
The answer lay within.
“Sooner or later, you’re going to make moves,” Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett said. “If you do your homework the right way, you’re preparing the guys underneath so when that day comes, it’s an easy transition. We’ve shown that the first year when we moved Dax and Sacha, we just had another guy coming through it.”
It’s a partnership that was born when Rzatkowski joined the Red Bulls on loan from RB Salzburg last January.
“Marc and I get on really well. We even live in the same building so I guess that goes a long way,” Davis said with a chuckle. “But on top of that, he has some great tendencies and he’s a joy to play with on the field. Going forward, I think you could even see in that Pantoja game, he has a lot of good ideas. He’s very clean technically and he has a nose for setting up final plays and scoring.”
Rzatkowski’s return, though, wasn’t certain in December. The Red Bulls didn’t pick up the option from his loan. However, based on an open dialogue during his exit interview, the 28-year-old German felt assured he’d return for the 2019 season.
“I said also at the end of the season that I want to stay here, and they say to me that they want me also to stay here,” Rzatkowski said. “But for sure, I had a contract in Salzburg, and in soccer, in a career, you never know what will happen, but I was confident.”
Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said it was a “big priority” to sign Rzatkowski, which the club did utilizing Targeted Allocation Money last month.
“Marc is different. He’s different from Sean Davis, he’s different from Tyler, he’s got some really interesting qualities and he’s comfortable exactly in that part of the field,” Armas said. “We tried to put him higher at different times, but his best spot is right there. And he’s a guy that’s real comfortable getting forward where Sean has taken a role now to cover a little bit deeper.”
Rzatkowski, who said he is feeling much more comfortable in his skin than when he joined the team last preseason, is quick to point out he’s not a like-for-like replacement for Adams.
“I’m not Tyler Adams 2.0. I’m a different guy, I have different qualities,” he said. “I’m excited and I’m confident enough to say that I can help the team in this position.”
Considering the condensed regular season schedule in the 2019 and the possibility of competing deep in multiple competitions, the Red Bulls haven’t given Rzatkowski the keys outright.
Cristian Casseres Jr. was considered the heir apparent and the most likely to fill Adams’ shoes. The Venezuelan Under-20, who played one MLS game in Adams’ stead a year ago, is also the closest match of Adams’ skillset on the current roster.
“We love him,” Armas said. “He’s actually a version of Tyler, but he’s got some great qualities — the fearlessness, he’s great on the ball, he plays against the ball. We think we have some good options.”
Casseres officially joined the Red Bulls last February, a few days after Rzatkowski arrived. He also feels much more comfortable at the start of Year Two in the Red Bulls system. He has also heard his name associated with Adams. But like Rzatkowski, Casseres is more interested in forging his own path than trying to fill one left by Adams.
“Tyler is a great player and lucky for him he was able to go to a great club in Germany, but I’m about writing my own story,” Casseres said through a translator. “I’m worried about what I can do myself because in the end I’m my own player. With the support of the coaching staff and my teammates I feel like I’ll be able to be successful here.”