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Red Bulls open season in Orlando looking to take next step

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Red Bulls
New York Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber.
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The New York Red Bulls are expected to be one of the top teams in the MLS’ Eastern Conference when they take the pitch on Saturday for their season opener against Orlando City SC. New York is coming off a 2022 campaign in which they qualified for the playoffs, but got bounced in the first round. 

They’ll look to build on that success with a roster that includes breakout winger Lewis Morgan and new Designated Player Dante Vanzeir. Long Island native Sean Nealis also takes the helm as team captain, becoming the first New York native to hold that distinction in franchise history. 

The Red Bulls have found plenty of success in the regular season and have made the postseason in 13 consecutive years, but New York has not reached the MLS cup in any of those years.

New York Red Bulls @ Orland City SC

  • Location: Exploria Stadium in Orlando, FL
  • Time: Saturday, February 25 at 7:30 p.m. ET
  • Channel: Apple TV
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How will Dante Vanzeir fit in for Red Bulls

The Red Bulls are bullish — pardon the pun — about their major offseason addition in Vanzeir, who joins the team from Belgium. New York added a 15-goal scorer to help the offense, which had been led by a 14-goal effort from Morgan last season, and head coach Gerhard Struber wasn’t mincing his words during media this past week when discussing the new addition.

“He has a special ability, a big nose for goals,” Struber said. “We have not always had the right position or the right nose for goals, but we now have a player right now who has that.”

Additionally, Struber called Vanzeir the “missing link” from what the club had last season. Vanzeir arrived in New York last week and went through a week a training with his new team ahead of this weekend’s season opener in Orlando. 

The Belgian is well aware of the adjustment period that will take place as he gets accustomed to the MLS, but he is confident he can be that impact player the Red Bulls are looking for. 

“My personal goal every year for myself, and I’m a realistic guy as well as realistic is 15 goals,” Vanzeir said. “I am aiming towards that every year. But being here, I’m going to have to adapt to the culture here, the time difference, and a lot of things. I think the team understands that, I think once I’m feeling good on and off the pitch, everything will be just fine.”

Playing with raised expectations

Red Bulls defender John Tolkin joked that there were “so many haters out there” when he was asked about where New York had been picked to finish last season. This time around, the Red Bulls are playing with a lot more pressure on them. 

The team finds itself in an interesting spot as they balance between continuing to develop the young group of players they have, such as Tolkin, and their continued quest for an MLS crown. 

“It only gives us more motivation when they say we’re going to finish bottom of the table,” Tolkin said. “It’s something we kind of laugh about and we also use it as motivation. But it’s always nice to think that people are saying we’re gonna finish good, but you know, it doesn’t really matter what they say at the end of the day.”

The Red Bulls are essentially bringing back the same roster from last season and they’ll have plenty to build upon as the development process continues. Struber described the approach to 2023 in the following way.

“In this way, we are very development-orientated, but also very results-orientated. We are ready for more,” he said. 

New playoff format 

The MLS’ TV rights deal with Apple TV will be one of the most fascinating things to watch across all of sports and will have a big impact on MLS this season. That includes the change in the playoff format, which was announced earlier this week.

The league announced an expanded playoff format that will add two spots in each conference and there will now be a best-of-3 first round. MLS is hoping to build off the excitement of last season’s playoffs and the change came at the behest of Apple

“It’s interesting. I know the league was trying to get games in with the Apple TV deal,” Nealis said about the new format. “We’ll see how it works out. I felt the playoff format last year was really good. So hopefully it kind of continues to be as good as last year.”

For more Red Bulls news, visit amNewYork

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