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MLS preview: NYCFC, Red Bulls have high expectations for 2020 season

From left, Red Bulls forward Brian White, NYCFC

From left, Red Bulls forward Brian White, NYCFC defenders Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot battle for the ball on July 14, 2019 in Harrison, N.J. Credit: AP/Steve Luciano

Entering its 25th season of play, Major League Soccer is in a much different place than it was when the league kicked off with 10 teams and an experimental rule set in 1996.

MLS now is one of the largest top division leagues in the world with 26 teams taking the field in 2020. Total attendance reached a new high in 2019 with more than 8.6 million fans in the stands, a number expected to grow as the league expands to 30 teams by 2022.

New York’s clubs, however, haven’t quite led the way in that growth. Attendance was down for both New York City FC and the Red Bulls in 2019 as they averaged 21,107 and 17,281, respectively, with the league-wide average at 21,305. NYCFC’s ongoing stadium saga hangs over the club at every turn.

Still, both clubs have high expectations for 2020, with the area’s first MLS Cup championship remaining the ultimate prize.

NYCFC changes at top

The leadership at NYCFC looks a bit different entering its sixth season of play without coach Domènec Torrent and longtime sporting director Claudio Reyna. The team taking the field Sunday at Columbus Crew SC, however, remains mostly intact from the group that gave City its best regular season yet with 64 points before a disappointing early playoff exit.

NYCFC already is firing in 2020 under new head coach Ronny Deila with two CONCACAF Champions League wins to advance to the quarterfinals. Deila believes he’s the man to bring City its first trophy, but also wants to build the squad to peak late and set up a deep postseason run, something that’s eluded NYCFC thus far.

“For me, I'd like to see the playoffs. It's the most important thing here, so you have to improve the team the whole season to be the best in the end,” Deila said. “See improvement all the time and be there when it's time to get that crucial win.”

Maxi Moralez, the MLS assist leader in 2019, remains the key to offensive creation for NYCFC, who will maintain the controlled style of play used under Torrent. Brazilian striker Héber returns after leading the team in goals a year ago, getting 2020 started with a hat trick in the CCL opener, as does versatile forward Valentín Castellanos.

Keaton Parks permanently signed from Benfica after a successful loan is returning to the midfield alongside captain Alex Ring. They’ll be joined by homegrown James Sands, who continues to impress in midfield and defense.

City’s preferred back line in front of keeper Sean Johnson is unchanged with center backs Maxime Chanot and Alex Callens alongside fullbacks Anton Tinnerholm and Ronald Matarrita. Lake Grove’s Joe Scally will provide depth at right back ahead of his announced move to Germany following 2020.

“It’s a nice feeling to have a couple games underneath you, and a couple wins at that,” Johnson said. “A winning mentality is something we need to start to develop early in the season. It sets the tone, gives us something to build off to put ourselves in the best position to go into the league and be where we need to be Sunday.”

Red Bulls face uncertainty

The Red Bulls only are about 16 months removed from lifting the Supporters’ Shield for most points in the 2018 regular season, but a spiraling finish to 2019 set them up for an early playoff exit. Coupled with the departures of veteran leaders Luis Robles, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kemar Lawrence, the Red Bulls have an air of uncertainty about them ahead of Sunday’s home opener against FC Cincinnati.

Still, with the high-energy pressing style the Red Bulls have become known for over the years, head coach Chris Armas expects the team to make noise this season, emphasizing ‘togetherness’ as a key characteristic and an MLS Cup as their main objective.

“We’re really hard to play against,” said Armas, who grew up in Brentwood. “We found that out this preseason. To play our style, it does take everyone at all times to be connected.”

In the absence of those big names, a new generation of Red Bulls leadership has grown from the back. Homegrown defensive midfielder Sean Davis was named team captain Thursday ahead of the opener, while veteran center backs Tim Parker, from Hicksville, and Aaron Long both are vocal commanders on the back line.

Armas also was impressed by the growing leadership of Kaku, the Paraguayan designated player still yet to reach his full potential entering his third season with the club.

Longtime backup Ryan Meara will be handed the reins in goal following Robles’ departure, while winger Daniel Royer and a trio of young strikers will look to replace the presence of Wright-Phillips up top.

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