If the New York Red Bulls are going to overcome a 2-1 first-leg deficit and upset Toronto FC, they need to score at least two goals in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday at BMO Field. If they are going to get those goals, they very well could come through head coach Jesse Marsch's secret weapon: Daniel Royer.
The 27-year-old isn't the New York squad's most prolific scorer -- that would be Bradley Wright-Phillips -- nor is he the club's best creator, an honorific that can go only to unflappable Californian Sacha Kljestan. Royer also isn't an exciting young talent such as Tyler Adams, a teenager capable of delivering seeing-eye through-balls and a relentless work ethic.
But the Austrian international Royer, a 2016 discovery signing from Danish side FC Midtjylland, is the player whose presence transforms the Red Bulls from a fringe playoff squad to an MLS Cup contender. With Royer in the starting lineup, the Red Bulls went 12-9-2 this season versus just 2-3-6 when he didn't start, including a 1-2-4 swoon in August and September when Royer was injured that coincided with NYRB sliding down the Eastern Conference standings. The difference in goals was even starker, as New York scored 38 in his 23 starts (1.65 per game) against a mere 1.36 goals in matches he didn't start.
Marsch understands the potency that the attacker brings to his side.
"Danny's good around the goal," the coach said during a phone call with ESPN FC. "He's a smart player. He's a good finisher, and he has a good eye for final play. You're always in need of players like that, especially for us, where we have Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan. If we don't have another threat, then teams can focus too much on those two guys, and it's harder to unbalance [the opposition]."
The Red Bulls' best stretch of play this season came following a formation switch, one that Marsch says was in part designed to give Royer the flexibility to wander. "Danny's a creative player who likes the freedom to move around and use his instincts," the coach said. Although the club didn't abandon its trademark high press and pressure, the new tactical alignment allowed Royer a bit more leeway to roam and interchange with his teammates. The group went 4-0-0 in July, with the attacker finding the back of the net six times. He won MLS Player of the Month honors for his efforts.
"I love the style that we play," he told ESPN FC while recovering during an off day. "I try to bring my energy. I try to be dangerous in the attack. I try to have a high work rate defensively and offensively."
This season, he has done a little bit of everything. Royer finished second on the club in goals with 12, trailing Wright-Phillips' 17. (Interestingly, Wright-Phillips scored just nine goals in the 24 matches he and Royer started together, with eight tallies coming in the eight games Royer didn't start.) The Austrian posted team-highs in shooting percentage (23.1 percent) and shot-conversion percentage (54.5 percent) while seeing only 15.4 percent of his shots blocked, an extremely low figure compared to that of teammates such as Wright-Phillips (26.5 percent), Felipe (29.7 percent) and Kljestan (34.1 percent). Royer also finished eighth on the Red Bulls in tackles with 32.
The playoffs are a time to step up, and getting a result in Toronto will be the most difficult test the team faces all season. A 2-1 loss in the first leg means that Royer and the Red Bulls need a 2-0 or 3-2 result in their favor to advance. Basically, they need to score. The midfielder, for one, thinks there are goals to be had.
"We showed that we are able to score [against them]," he said of the match at Red Bull Arena. "I'm really excited about that. We have to put everything into it, and now we literally have nothing to lose."
It's a game that sets up well for an offensive-minded player. New York needs to attack. There's no time to sit back and hope to nick one on the counter; it's time to play smart but take chances and go forward. (And don't give Sebastian Giovinco any close free-kick opportunities.)
Royer is ready. In their game at Red Bull Arena he took a penalty, chipping TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono. That was his fifth successful attempt in five tries. Royer likes the spotlight, which is good because it will be bright at BMO Field. He'll lead by example and by ability.
"If you want to win games, then you have to do those things," he said. "It's not only me on penalty kicks. It's in general. It's chances on free kicks, set pieces and creating chances. If you want to win, you have to take the shot.
"The will to win has always been higher than the fear to lose."