Jesse Marsch's instincts were right.
After back-to-back first-place finishes, the New York Red Bulls had to add a wrinkle to their tactical arsenal. For as effective as Marsch's high-pressing, 4-2-3-1 formation had been, the rest of the league was beginning to catch on.
But the 4-2-2-2 alignment Marsch trotted out to kick off 2017 didn't jell. Sacha Kljestan was miscast in a wide role, Sean Davis struggled to fill Dax McCarty's shoes in defensive midfield, and finding the right strike partner for Bradley Wright-Phillips proved tricky.
So Marsch eventually mulled a more radical change. As the Red Bulls came out of MLS' Gold Cup break with a match against the San Jose Earthquakes on July 19, Marsch deployed his side in a version of the 3-4-3 that has been en vogue since Chelsea rode it to the Premier League title last season.
The result? A 5-1 thrashing of the Earthquakes. We're now five games into the experiment, with New York boasting a 4-1-0 record and league-best 17 goals scored over that stretch.
The Red Bulls' average formation against Orlando on Saturday.
Sean Davis' passing chart against Orlando.
Having a trio of forwards to apply pressure, win the ball and run at the opposing back line fits well within Marsch's sensibilities. As with any effective formation, this look gets the most out of New York's roster.
Take Davis: The 24-year-old seemed muted in defensive midfield, drifting in and out of the starting lineup. He's not a traditional winger or No. 10, either. But as a right-sided forward, tucked inside while Tyler Adams roams the flank? That's been an ideal role for Davis, who has two goals and three assists in the past five matches. After creating just four scoring chances in 12 matches before the formation change, he has carved out 14 opportunities since.
As for Adams, it's worth acknowledging he showed promise in his own audition for the McCarty role following the captain's offseason exit to the Chicago Fire. As a wing back, however, it's been Adams unleashed — his pace, work rate and aggression wreaking havoc out wide.
Kljestan, with three attacking options to pick out, has six assists in five matches. Now sidelined with a hyperextended right knee, left winger Daniel Royer racked up five goals in three games in this formation. Aaron Long has continued his breakout year with composed performances anchoring a three-man back line, while Felipe has stepped up to cover the necessary ground as New York's lone defensive midfielder.
As the home stretch looms, Red Bulls supporters will remember the way their team ran of out steam in the postseason each of the past two years. Although a lot can happen in 11 games, this New York team doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
— The LA Galaxy fell 2-0 to New York City FC on Saturday in new signing Jonathan dos Santos' first start, but the Mexico international looks like just the player Sigi Schmid needs. Dos Santos connected on 57 of 60 passes, created four scoring chances (the second best total this week) and constantly hurried the NYCFC back line with his defensive pressure.
— One reason NYCFC got out of StubHub Center with three points: The performance of hard-nosed defensive midfielder Yangel Herrera, who won a week-high 12 duels.
— Marky Delgado has earned a reputation as a quiet contributor, but he made plenty of noise in Toronto FC's 4-1 win over the Portland Timbers on Saturday. In addition to recording a goal and an assist for the first time in his MLS career, the 22-year-old also was second this week with six interceptions.
— He wasn't the splashiest signing of the summer window, but Samuel Piette showcased his grit with a week-high six tackles won in his Montreal Impact debut, a 3-0 win at the Philadelphia Union on Saturday.
Goal's MLS Team of the Week
GOALKEEPER: Sean Johnson (New York City FC)
MIDFIELDERS: Marky Delgado (Toronto FC), Sunday Stephen (Real Salt Lake), Blerim Dzemaili (Montreal Impact)
FORWARDS: Alberth Elis (Houston Dynamo), David Villa (New York City FC), Sean Davis (New York Red Bulls)
Bench: Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Waylon Francis (Columbus Crew), Samuel Piette (Montreal Impact), Yangel Herrera (New York City FC), Victor Ulloa (FC Dallas), Vicente Sanchez (Houston Dynamo), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)