What Are They All About? New York Red Bull
Back to reality. This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Los Angeles Galaxy in front of a sold-out Toyota Park. Although the 1-0 score line may reflect some sort of parity on the surface, the Fire never really looked like they were going to get a result and their performance was as dismal as the weather. Similarly, the Fire were dealt another blow as the crowd put to bed any questions about Toyota Park’s viability as a soccer hub. Cars lined the sleet covered parking lot hours before kickoff and the iterations of Ibrahimovic jerseys were as plenteous as the excuses offered for the Bridgeview deal being “disastrous”. Lest there be any doubt about the power of spending money, the crowds dissipated immediately after the Swede was substituted and empty stands once again glistened under advertisements for the next “Gold Level” match.
The loss further solidified tenth place in the Eastern Conference standings with Toronto being the only side with fewer points than Chicago. Keeping in mind that TFC have a match in hand and have been wrangling Tim Horton’s cashiers to play in their MLS fixtures as they push for a CONCACAF Champions league trophy, it is safe to say that the Fire will be rock bottom soon enough. Last year’s heights are quickly becoming a blip in the rear view mirror as Chicago’s average point total since being purchased by Andell Holdings continues to be among the worst such averages in league history. The players, however, will not have time to dwell on larger ontological questions as they prepare for another quickly approaching fixture against New York Red Bull (Saturday at 2:30 CT on Univision).
Jesse Marsch and his charges are on a slightly different trajectory as they firmly sit in a playoff position despite juggling CONCACAF appearances up until their loss to Chivas in the semi-finals last week. A growing youth movement (including international additions), tactical continuity, and the ever presence of Bradly Wright-Phillips’ scoring touch should set the Red Bulls up for success this season and Chicago could be in trouble when they visit New Jersey. However, there have already been moments that reflect the youngsters’ naivete and the vulnerability present within a tactic that relies on pure attacking energy. There are areas that Chicago might be able to exploit. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
New York Form Guide (last five competitive matches): W-D-L-L-W
Previous Result: A 3-1 home win against Montreal.
Formation: 4-3-2-1; Robles; Murillo, Long, Parker, Lawrence; Adams, Davis; Valot, Kaku, Royer; Wright-Phillips
Strengths: It is not hard to come up with the positive aspects of a side that has been firmly cemented as a model for running a successful club in MLS. Let’s see where the Red Bulls might succeed this weekend.
New Jersey’s Castle: While home field advantage is a mythical abstraction for some clubs in the league, the Red Bulls have secured one-hundred percent of the home points available from their first three encounters at Red Bull arena. Not only that, but they outscored their opponents, 10-1, and have not trailed at any point of their home fixtures. This is not an anomaly. The New Jersey fortress boasts the best home record in MLS since its construction. Opened in 2010 (against the Fire), Red Bull Arena has witnessed eighty-seven home victories and a total accrual of two-hundred and ninety-one points. There may be a Wilman Conde Fire jersey buried in the foundations at RBA, but Chicago will need more than voodoo to overcome those impressive home stats for the hosts.
Marschenomics: The biggest strength evident in this New York side is one that is permanently on the bench. Former Chicago midfielder Jesse Marsch has been at the helm of this Red Bull side since 2015, a year in which he and his charges secured the Supporters Shield. While silverware is nice, Marsch, alongside Ali Curtis (now no longer with the Red Bulls), Denis Hamlett, and Chris Armas, has revolutionized the way in which franchises can approach long term success in this league. Often criticized for a “lack of spending”, Red Bull has chosen to invest in their youth academy to continually churn out MLS ready talent and supplemented it with the acquisition of international youngsters as well. The likes of Aaron Long, Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Alex Muyl, and Derick Etienne have shown to not only be effective and entertaining, but that the talent pool within the US has more potential than some critics allow for. The implementation of a bottom up system in which the tactics that the Red Bulls implement are the same from their U-5 team up through NYRBII and the first team inscribe not only a uniform mentality but a unique pride in playing for the badge.
Additionally, in what can only be described as True Model Business practices, the Red Bulls have utilized league mechanisms to generate the funding necessary for their supplements, both international and from within the league. Trading the likes of Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, and Felipe in recent years has seen them garner the funds to add Tim Parker, Florian Valot, and most recently, Kaku to bolster their squad and retain a youthful feel that will ensure this squad is successful not just now, but for years to come. Getting the tactics right is one thing, but the man management and the navigation of league processes is why Marsch is touted by many as one of the best managers in the league.
Today You are a Forward, Tomorrow You will be a Goalie: While we usually try to avoid talking about the Fire in these sections, recent happenings warrant for a discussion of their clear disadvantage heading into this fixture. It is no secret that the Chicago roster is incomplete and that they missed out on their major targets in the winter transfer window. While that is unfortunate, it can and does happen for various reasons in a tumultuous market. However, the Fire’s response to those failures has been quite shocking. There have been no immediately available international targets sought in what can only be described as a scouting failure, there has been little inquiry into potential targets within the league, and the lack of a USL side or any real investment in an academy (a la New York Red Bull) all mean that Veljko Paunovic has resorted to some tactical gymnastics this season. The results have been more reminiscent of a pre-school gymnastics class at the YMCA than they have been of Simone Biles.
As a specific example, recent injuries coupled with a lack of trust in draft picks and the gaping creative hole in the final third have seen Paunovic switch to a 3-5-2. While a switch in formation is not that odd, some of the choices made within that tactical shift are mind boggling. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been utilized as a center back against LA, Columbus, and for a spell in the Portland match. While he has the technical ability and intelligence to pull off this switch, it has left Chicago weak in the midfield and added confusion to a back line struggling for consistency. Dax McCarty and Tony Tchani have not yet found chemistry, Lillard and Campbell do not seen adept at passing out of the back (a here to touted requirement for this Fire side), and the utilization of Elliot Collier as a pseudo-winger has seen his presence and contributions severely limited.
Likewise, leaving Johan Kappelhof off of the team sheet is an impossibility, but his utilization as a right back is not ideal. He spent time in that position for FC Groningen, but that was as part of a flat back four in which he had not offensive responsibilities. He simply is not an attack minded wing back and his discomfort at that position came through when he was caught in two minds as Ashely Cole sent in the cross for Zlatan’s game winner this weekend.
Lastly, Paunovic’s response to a lack of an Enganche has been to pretend as if one is not needed. Opting to leave Katai on the bench—arguably the closest thing Chicago has to a playmaker—he instead started with both Alan Gordon and Nemanja Nikolic up top. Traditionally, both of those players have thrived in a lone striker role and they continued to play as if the other were not on the field. A lack of communication and chemistry resulted in not only frustration, but a bizarre shift in which Nikolic was asked to play closer to the left wing. The overall results of the tactical shifts seem to be that few of the players know their proper role in any given moment and such a mentality will prove disastrous against New York. The Red Bulls have been absolutely dominant in midfield this season and Bradley Wright-Phillips has made easy work of back lines more competent than Chicago’s.
Weaknesses: For as much praise as the Red Bulls receive, there are still some shortcomings present within their system, both on the field and off the field. Let’s explore where they might struggle on Saturday.
Just Shy: While their youthful exuberance, pure energy, counterattacking play, and future stability are unquestionable, there is a bit of wetness behind the ears when it comes to this group. Time and time again the Red Bulls have come just shy of reaching new heights under Marsch. Hiccups like earlier than expected playoff exits, a loss in the 2017 Open Cup Final, and most recently, an exit in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions league, have become the norm for this New York side. When leadership and experience are traded away for league funny money, such shortcomings are seemingly inevitable. Whether it is under the form of the original Metro Stars tag or this new energy drink iteration, New York has yet to win MLS Cup or the Open Cup and such blemishes on their history seems to weigh heavily on the franchise. It may not be an immediately apparent weakness, but if the Red Bulls catch themselves saying “not again” after their loss to Chivas, the Fire might be able to have a mental advantage in this one.
I Can’t See at Speeds Less than 100 mph: Perhaps New York’s biggest weakness this season is evidenced in their inability to play effectively in scenarios that are not engulfed by sprinting. Needless free kick give aways during build up play, a lack of marking on set pieces, losses in concentration during moments when opponents dwell on the ball in less than dangerous areas, and silly mistakes when in the lead have been the contours that have shaped New York’s conceded goals. While this is not usually a readily exploitable weakness, Chicago’s poor form and an underestimation of New York’s opponents may just play into the hands of the Fire. A dangerous delivery from Schweinsteiger or Nikolic’s ability to pounce on mistakes may just create an avenue for success for the Fire.
Prediction: Chicago could not take advantage of a three match home stint, playing on the road will not get much easier. Red Bulls 3-1 Fire. Bradley Wright-Philips with a brace, Kaku with his second in as many matches, and Nikolic with a clinical finish.