BULLS RUN: RED BULLS READY TO FINISH THE JOB IN 2016

Will 2016 be the Red Bulls year?

They’ve come oh-so-close to finishing the job in the past few years. The Red Bulls have two Supporters’ Shield wins the last three years (2013, 2015) and made the Eastern Conference Final in the last two years. All that remains for this group is to finally claim MLS Cup.

A bitterly disappointing Eastern Conference Final loss to the Columbus Crew is now being used by Jesse Marsch as a rallying point for his team. Marsch believes the failure to get to the MLS Cup Final will fuel the Red Bulls all through 2016.

“We wanted the right to play for the ultimate trophy,” the Red Bulls’ coach said to MSG Networks. “We didn’t get there. I think that feeling at the end of [2015], that anger, that bitterness. There’s been a lot of talk of a chip on the shoulder with this group. Well, right now there’s that.”

As driven as the Red Bulls might be coming into this season, the new campaign won’t be easy for them. Last year, New York was one of the league’s surprise packages and snuck up the standings. There will be no sneaking up on anyone in 2016. The Red Bulls are considered one of the favorites to win the league and will have a target on their backs in every match.

“I think the thing that’s certainly going to be different is the respect level we’re going to command around the league,” Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said.  “We don’t have that any more. We’re not going to surprise many teams this year.”

Remarkably, New York returns most of its team with one notable exception. Center back Matt Miazga was transferred to Chelsea during the winter transfer window and left a huge hole in the heart of the Red Bulls’ defense. Damien Perrinelle, the savvy veteran who did so well with Miazga last season, is expected to miss time due to last season’s left knee injury.

The Red Bulls moved quickly to fill the void left by Miazga by signing Gideon Baah, a Ghanaian central defender from Finnish side HJK Helsinki. McCarty has liked what he’s seen from the 24 year-old, who has experience playing in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.

“Gideon, he’s got a great resume,” McCarty said. “The first two days of training you could tell he’s a great player. Once he gets up to speed on our system, you can tell he’s going to be a beast in this league.”

Baah will be joined by Ronald Zubar in central defense with Perrinelle still sidelined. Marsch thinks the pair will develop chemistry quickly and could be the preferred pairing going forward.

“There are some comparisons to last year, when we had to get the back line sorted out rather quickly. But, I think that obviously everyone along the back line understands their roles very clearly and it’s just about integrating Gideon in a way to help him understand how to fit, how to use his strengths, what the demands are,” he said during media day.

”I think that so far him and Ronald have meshed really well together, and I think there are strong possibilities for them being a really good partnership.”

The system that McCarty speaks of is the style of play Marsch employed to great effect in 2015. That won’t change much. You’ll see the Red Bulls harass opposing teams with their high-pressing game. But the formation that they’ll use may change from time to time. Marsch preferred using a 4-2-3-1 formation for most of last season, but with the added depth on the team, the Red Bulls will use a few alterations in the way they line up.

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“I think that we have more flexibility to how we play. We can use players in a lot of different ways, and I think it’ll be even harder to prepare for us this year,” Marsch said. “So I knew that we needed that even last year, but things were going so well last year that there wasn’t a need to change and I didn’t want to disturb the rhythm of what we were doing as a team. But this year, I think you’ll see a more varied approach on many different levels and I think it’ll help us be harder to play against.”

A LOOK AHEAD: SUNDAY VS. TORONTO FC

The Red Bulls may dodge a bullet for their season opener as former Red Bull Jozy Altidore is listed as questionable for Sunday’s season opener with an injured hamstring. But the hosts will still have to deal with the “Atomic Ant,” Sebastian Giovinco.

The reigning MLS MVP scored 22 goals in his first season in North America and carved open the Red Bulls with a sensational solo goal the last time the teams played.

TFC was one of the worst teams defensively in 2015, surrendering 58 goals last season. The coaching staff and front office went to work fixing the defense, adding proven MLS players such as Clint Irwin and Drew Moor.

New York will take heart from the fact that Toronto was one of the worst road teams last season. The Canadian side was 4-10-3 away from home and there will be no doubt that Red Bull Arena will be rocking for the first game since the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.