Polak: Red Bulls’ Health Will Be Critical Down Stretch

The Red Bulls received some welcome news today as they continued to train for their upcoming road match against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night. Although they will be without midfielder Sacha Kljestan (United States) and defender Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica), both of whom away on international duty, they are slated to receive two key contributors back from injury.

According to the team’s website, captain and midfielder Dax McCarty will be returning to the pitch along with defensive stalwart Damien Perrinelle. Both players provide vital roles on the roster and should help plug the holes created by the temporary departures of Kljestan and Lawrence.

For those who don’t remember, McCarty suffered a tibial plateau fracture on a hard tackle from Khlay Thiam in New York’s match against the Chicago Fire on July 31, and the diagnosis a few days later was that he would miss four to six weeks. September 3 would be slightly longer than four weeks, meaning that the bone healed quickly to allow him to return on the short end of that timeline. Perrinelle suffered injuries to his ankle and meniscus on August 7 against the LA Galaxy. Jeff Larentowicz caused the injuries with the hard tackle, was given a yellow card, and later was suspended one game by MLS. He also had a four to six week time-frame, so his return came on the quick end as well.

Those who don’t understand the importance of having both back need only to see the enthusiasm from head coach Jesse Marsch. He was quoted in the article as saying, “We are so happy to have those guys back. They bring a lot technically and mentally for our team. Having our captain back will be a big step for us.”

Since that August 7 match out West, the Red Bulls have earned two wins and a road draw in MLS competitions, as well as a road draw in Champions League play. Earning eight of a possible 12 points is pretty impressive minus your captain and arguably best defender. However, the one area they have struggled has been on defense after taking leads on the road. Having a midfielder that plays well defensively along with a dominant presence on the back line should help matters.

Need evidence? Look at what happened in the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. Perrinelle injured his ACL in the first leg of the series against DC United. In the Eastern Conference Final, New York conceded two road goals at Columbus that ultimately killed their dreams of reaching the final. Look at how the beginning of the season went before Perrinelle arrived. The Red Bulls posted seven wins, 10 losses and two draws in MLS competitions prior to his return on July 10. Between his return and the latest injury? Two wins and four draws in MLS matches, including the one in LA. While the defense still lost leads in those matches, they were able to come away with points unlike earlier this season.

In the story, Marsch noted that, “It’s just a matter of balancing out our team to figure out what’s going to be best on the day. As of today, they’re ready to go.”

That balance will be a bit difficult to determine for sure. McCarty typically fulfills a more defensive midfield role and helps distribute the ball out of his team’s own end and up the pitch. Kljestan meanwhile serves as more of an offensive distributor in the attacking end, as evidenced by his league-leading 15 assists this season. Not to take anything away from what McCarty can contribute on the attack, but it’s hard to expect the same success that Kljestan has. It seems likely Felipe will handle more of Kljestan’s duties, especially on set pieces. Perhaps Sean Davis, who has been very impressive in McCarty’s absence, will be more active on the offensive end.

As for Perrinelle, his main role has been as a center back, which has been handled by Ronald Zubar and Aurelien Collin typically in his absence. It seems likely that Collin might be relegated to the bench, with Zubar seeing the majority of playing time this season. Chris Duvall has had some difficulties on the outside since Connor Lade suffered his season-ending ACL injury. However, I’m not sure putting either Collin or Zubar or Perrinelle on the outside would give New York the speed they need there.

The bottom line is this: For the New York Red Bulls to achieve their MLS Cup dream, they will need to stay healthy from this point forward. There is already some concern over goalkeeper Luis Robles, who seemed to get injured late in last Sunday’s win over the New England Revolution. He was listed as “questionable” after training on Wednesday in New Jersey, but it does not seem likely he will be out. He has started 133 consecutive matches, and unless the injury is serious, it is hard to believe he will miss it.

New York remains nine points clear of missing the postseason, so they have some buffer should they need to sit their keeper to ensure his health. However, they cannot lose any more players on the back line or key pieces of their offense if they expect to take advantage of the window they now have open. This team has already lost defenders Gideon Baah and Lade for the season. They have already been without McCarty for an extended period. It remains unclear how many games Kljestan might miss going forward due to international duty. If this team can stay together, they just might be able to make a run for the ages. If the injury bug significantly bites again, it will be tough to think a championship run is possible.

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