What Are They All About? New York Red Bulls
A sigh of relief. This past weekend the Chicago Fire won on the road in Montreal on the back of a Bastian Schweinsteiger goal. It was only their second win from the past nine matches but they did overcome a seven match away winless streak and will be hoping to build on the confidence that the Montreal result offered. With the season quickly winding down there is little room for error as Chicago jockeys for playoff position in their seven remaining fixtures. Although Toronto FC has the Supporters’ Shield nearly wrapped up, second place in the East is still attainable for the Fire and it would mean the welcome comfort of a playoff bye. Chicago could re-ignite their bid for that second spot with a victory over the New York Red Bulls at Toyota Park this Saturday (3:00 CT on UniMas).
Jesse Marsch and his charges should not be taken lightly by the home side as they sit just four points behind Chicago with a match in hand. Should the Red Bulls capitalize on their own precious playoff opportunity this Saturday, the Fire will have the added worry of having a more difficult remaining schedule than the teams below them in the playoff race. While we find ourselves labeling each of these matches as “crucial”, Saturday’s fixture will likely dictate momentum in the East for the remainder of the season. Will Chicago be able to write off the past two months as a strange blemish on an otherwise fantastic season, or will New York earn a win that catapults them back into the conversation for a deep playoff run? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
NYRB Form Guide (last five league matches): D-D-L-W-L
Previous Result: A 2-2 away draw against FC Dallas.
Formation: 3-4-3; Robles; Zizzo, Long, Perinelle; Felipe, Lade, Kljestan, Adams; Muyl, Wright-Phillips, Davis
Strengths: This is the second meeting between these two sides this season and the Red Bulls will enter Saturday’s encounter knowing that they bested the Fire back in April. The 2-1 loss for the Fire began what would be a common streak of not playing well on the road and not competing against the sides closest to them in the standings. That fixture also reiterated many of the strengths we highlighted for the Red Bulls prior to the match, including their high press possession based style of play, their ability to outrun opponents, and the tactical flexibility of Jesse Marsh. Let’s see how they might succeed this time around.
Another Game Another Formation: In April one of our major topics of discussion was Marsch’s ability to realize that the 4-2-2-2 block midfield formation he had started the season with was not working well with his personnel. He needed to unlock Kljestan’s playmaking ability while also utilizing Bradley Wright-Phillips in his preferred lone number nine role. Since then, Marsch has once again switched his formation, this time to a 3-4-3 with a diamond in midfield. To some it may appear as if the man who made over 200 appearances for the Fire in his playing career is simply tinkering too much. However, given the tumultuous period in the NYRB front office at the beginning of the season, a lack of spending power afforded by the overseas owners, and the trial by fire nature of bringing players up from NYRB II (their USL affiliate) to play prominent starting roles with the first team, Marsch’s tinkering is not only necessary but their presence in the playoff discussion is a feat of brilliance.
Realizing that Tyler Adams is more of a box-to-box number "eight" than a holding “six” and that he exhibits the youthful exuberance and passionate glimmer that an eighteen-year-old should, saw him moved from a role next to Felipe into a more active part of the counterattack. Similarly, Marsch’s lack of true wingbacks, Aaron Long’s demonstration of ability as a center back next to an already impressive duo of Zizzo and Perinelle, and a plethora of attacking options on the wings made the move to a back there a natural one. It sets up the team to be able to win possession through Connor Lade and Felipe, dictate the pace and point of attack through Kljestan, and make the opposition think twice about pushing too far up the field for fear of one of the speediest counter attacks in the league. Oh yeah, and Bradley-Wright Phillips isn’t half bad at finishing chances. Marsch has done a lot with seemingly very little and that should worry a Chicago side that has struggled tactically in recent weeks despite a star-studded line up.
Today’s Training Session Revolves Around Keep Away: No matter how the Red Bulls line up, the formation changes have always revolved around the goal of gaining a possession advantage. Whether they are at home or away, up a man or down a man, winning or losing, the Red Bulls control the possession statistics of their matches. Whether or not they use their possession properly is a more contextualized question, but their possession numbers are alarming. You have to go back to their July 5th match against New England to find the last time that New York did not have the possession advantage in a fixture and even then, it was a measly 52% to 48% in favor of the Revolution. On five occasions, their possession percentage has reached above 65% and they have been bested in the category just three times this season.
The reason this is problematic for this weekend’s fixture is that Chicago prides itself on controlling possession at Toyota Park. Although they have dangerous moments on the counter (especially away from home), their success and place in the table is due largely to their early season ability to control the ball and build from the back in front of their faithful. If the likes of Klejstan and Felipe have another stand out performance, we’re not sure where Chicago’s goals are going to come from. With Accam recovering from an ankle injury, Nikolic still missing his shooting boots, and McCarty tied up in midfield battles, and Schweinsteiger potentially missing, the Fire may be out of luck when it comes to getting on the score sheet.
Growth Spurt: With thirteen players on their roster coming in at over six feet tall, New York has something that Chicago doesn’t. Perhaps more worryingly, they also have a knack of winning free kicks due to their speedy wingers and the aforementioned possession minded midfielders. While Chicago has not given away too many goals from set plays they have also not faced very many teams that thrive off of them. In their most recent matches New York has shown why their opponents cannot fall asleep on set pieces or concede them in the first place. Aaron Long got on the end of a Kljestan free kick to head the Red Bulls in front against Dallas, the equalizer against NYCFC came off of a penalty won by the quick feet of Kljestan, and there were five shots on target off of set plays between their matches against Portland and Orlando. This is all without mentioning that the Red Bulls crosses from open play have the same ferocity. Fire supporters need only think back to 2015 to remember the infamous corner kick play the Red Bulls put together to fear the worst when they see Kljestan standing over the ball.
Weaknesses: At the end of the day, this Red Bull side has won just one of their last five league matches and they are as close to seventh place Montreal as they are to third place Chicago. Marsh’s tactics and man managing can only take them so far and their struggles have been all too evident in their most recent encounters. Let’s see where things could fall apart for them on Saturday.
Experience Outweighs Exuberance: Perhaps one of the most glaring issues for New York heading into this fixture is the flip side of one of their strengths. Red Bull had tightened up the spending budget for their teams throughout the world in this past offseason and New York had the added pressures that come with MLS roster regulations. The Red Bulls and Marsh have been able to properly utilize their USL side to engrain tactics and a distinct style of play in their players (the uniformity of coaching methods and the migration of first team staff to the USL staff has been key to this) but at the end of the day there are aspects of the game that cannot be taught. The mental lapses present in players like Muyl, Adams, Long, and Etienne are something that will hopefully dissipate with experience but in a crucial match like Saturday’s the veteran leadership present throughout the Fire side could be a key factor in how the match shapes up.
Knowing when to stay and when to press has been an especially significant topic of discussion for New York. All six of the goals that they have conceded in their last four matches have come off of counter attack situations. Yes, all of them. The problem with Marsch’s formation is that the tall physically strong center back trio is most effective when facing build up play. Without wingbacks New York is already exposed on the flanks, but the back line does not have the speed to keep up in transition. These moments are especially exacerbated when Felipe goes on one of his meandering runs and is too far up field to provide cover in front of the back three. There is no easy solution to this given Marsch’s inability to sign improvements and unwillingness to compromise on possession play by sitting a second defensive midfielder next to Felipe. If David Accam is healthy, Lucho Solignac is utilized on the right, and Paunovic decides to start de Leeuw instead of Nikolic, this New York side will be in trouble come Saturday.
Red Revenge: While we don’t often like to make matches about singular individuals, there has perhaps been no more dramatic of a move in recent MLS memory as Dax McCarty’s trade to Chicago. Although it has been detailed elsewhere on the site and covered in our initial preview, it begs remembering here as well. McCarty has become the integral player that all Fire supporters expected and has re-launched his national team career on the back of that success. While he may be fully integrated and settling down in Chicago there will always be a bit of him that will feel nostalgic about his time in New York and angry about the way in which it ended. He is calm and composed when it comes to his playing style but we may very well see a bit of extra passion exude from his boots this weekend. He has already proven that letting him go was a mistake but he will want to put a personal exclamation mark on that notion.
Prediction: The match against Minnesota was atypical by all accounts. Chicago needs to show the fortitude that was present at Toyota Park earlier in the season and they will. Chicago 3-2 New York. Michael de Leeuw, Dax McCarty, and Matt Polster for Chicago. A McCarty own goal and a Bradley Wright Phillips stunner for New York.