The theme for the 2021 Red Bulls is fitting for a club emblazoned with the logo of a caffeinated beverage — energy.
It’s not coming from silver cans conveniently sold around Red Bull Arena, which will welcome back fans at 15% capacity for the club’s MLS season opener against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at 8 p.m. Instead, it’s from Gerhard Struber, the head coach set to embark on his first MLS season after joining the club just in time for an early playoff exit in 2020.
Brought to New York to revive the Red Bull organization’s high pressing, maximum intensity style at its MLS branch, Struber seems to be getting through to a young team with a fair bit of turnover entering a new season.
"I can feel that every single player right now is ready for the start," Struber said. "Of course the energy, what we need for our identity or for our style of play, it's very, very important that everyone is on the same page on a high level of energy and is ready with a high intensity to go."
Red Bulls supporters are used to the global organization’s high-pressing style, seeing it blossom under former head coach Jesse Marsch, now in charge of the Salzburg sister club where Struber spent years as a youth coach drilling the system. It largely worked under Marsch and his successor, Brentwood native Chris Armas, but early struggles in 2020 saw a more conservative on-field attitude take hold, and Armas was let go in September with an aim to bring the club back to its trademark approach.
Team captain Sean Davis said Struber’s immediate focus on energy impressed his teammates from Day 1.
"I think that a lot of players are embracing the demands and challenges that he's putting on us and I think that's something that's going to make us all better," Davis said. "He's pushing us outside of our comfort zone. And that's ultimately what you want as a player to grow."
With a new coach came some roster moves, most notably the trade of Hicksville-raised veteran centerback Tim Parker to the Houston Dynamo, as well as the controversial departure of designated player Kaku, who left for Saudi Arabia against the club’s wishes.
There still are a handful of veterans to provide some guidance, including Davis in the midfield, U.S. men’s national team defender Aaron Long and winger Daniel Royer.
But if the Red Bulls are to be successful this season, it will be from an energetic group of young players driving them forward and allowing their strategy to do the work for them.
"We have a good balance of veteran players, but also a lot of fresh, young talent that's progressed a lot through these early days of the season," Davis said. "So I think there's a lot of high hopes for the young guys and the energy, the fearlessness, that they bring to this group."
Chief among them will be Caden Clark. The 17-year-old burst onto the scene late last season, signing an MLS deal after just a few months with Red Bulls II in the USL Championship. Clark debuted with a bang, scoring in each of his first two matches to steal a win and a draw for his side and later scoring in the club’s playoff loss to eventual champion Columbus Crew SC.
Clark isn’t the traditional homegrown player, trained at the FC Barcelona academy in Arizona before joining Red Bulls II, but he’s bought in to the style as much as anybody. When asked a question about some tactical nuance, the youngster gave an answer sure to make Struber smile.
"All the principles stay the same no matter what formation we're playing in," Clark said. "We're Red Bulls, we're going to high press. That's our game, we're going to bring the energy whatever formation we're playing."