Fire v Red Bulls match preview

What Are They All About? New York Red Bulls  

Tripping at the first hurdle. This past weekend the Chicago Fire had a bye week during the international break. It gave them time to refocus and recharge after losing to Seattle at home in the previous round of fixtures. The 4-2 result against the Sounders sees the Fire on one point from three matches, a reality that simply isn’t good enough for a side that some pundits had as the most improved Eastern Conference team in the offseason. A bizarre thirty-fifth minute substitution saw an out of position Nicolas Hasler depart for Raheem Edwards who was not quite match fit after battling a hamstring injury in recent weeks, a situation which is a microcosm of this Chicago side at the moment. Under-prepared and without a coherent plan, the Fire stumbled in what was arguably a must win match. It is still early days and they have time to right the ship, but they’ll need maximum points as they host New York Red Bull this Saturday (Noon CT on ESPN+).

The Red Bulls will arrive in Bridgeview on the back of a mixed bag of results thus far in the season. A hard fought away draw against Columbus on opening day was followed up with battering San Jose in New Jersey, being unceremoniously ousted from CONCACAF Champions league by Santos Laguna, and then losing to Orlando this past weekend. Although Chris Armas’ men can point to injuries and international call-ups as a catalyst for handing Orlando their first win of the season, as it stands, this is a shell of the Supporters’ Shield winning side of last season both in terms of sharpness and mentality. Armas’ first trip to Bridgeview as a coach went swimmingly last season as a Bradley Wright-Phillips tally secured three points for the visitors. Will that become a theme for the Fire legend, or will the hosts remind him of Fire days past? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.

Red Bull Form Guide (All Competitions): L-W-L-L-D

Previous Result: A 1-0 home loss against Orlando.

Formation: 4-2-3-1; Robles; Duncan, Parker, Tarek, Lade; Davis, Rzatkowski; Muyl, Bezecourt, Royer; Wright-Phillips

Strengths: Although they may not have hit their stride yet, this Red Bull side is largely the same one that finished atop the MLS table last season—their third Shield in six years. The intricacies of Armas’ approach may differ slightly from Marsch’s as he attempts to make the squad his own in his first full season in charge, but the Red Bull system is largely still in place. With such consistency, a return to success is likely just around the corner. Let’s take a look.

A Blueprint for Goals: Although it may seem like an overstatement, a distinct tactical approach is key to success in MLS. With various hindrances, both technical and financial, tactical flexibility is not always a possibility within the league. Additionally, even the most tactically astute teams around the world have a go-to style of play. As alluded to above, the Red Bulls have their approach down to a tee. They press high, they press early, and they look to transition quickly through the central channels until they cross the midfield line at which point, they let the wingers and fullbacks take over before dumping the ball back into the central channel, often for an easy finish. The heat maps and passing charts from this season reflect this trend as there is rarely a non-diagonal pass made in the opposing half by Armas’ charges and a vast majority of these passes find their intended target—i.e. Wright Phillips or the late arriving Bezecourt.

They don’t thrive in possession, and in fact, they would rather their opponents have the ball as they look to counter in opportune moments. Each of the Red Bulls’ MLS goals this season follow this plan almost exactly. They don’t necessarily soak up pressure, in that they are always semi-offensively pressing, but they don’t necessarily care too much about build up play. “Turn and Go” is the motto of this side and they have the physical attributes, skill set, and coaching to carry out a model that many of them have had experience with for years now. Cool, calculated, and lethal. This is the type of play that led to an all-time league record for points last season (seventy-one) and illuminates the fact that Chicago is certainly in trouble this weekend.

Stingy at the Back: The record setting 2018 season was not simply a product of impressive numbers going forward. The stalwart back line allowed just thirty-three goals throughout the regular season—by comparison the Fire allowed nearly twice that—and the center back pairing of Aaron Long and Tim Parker is one of the strongest in the league. Securing Long’s services for the next few years under a TAM deal was perhaps the signing of the offseason. For Armas, it put to rest any doubts of undervaluing their next rising star. The pairing towers above the competition and has the physicality to compete with the likes of CJ Sapong but also has the positional awareness to negate the runs of Nikolic. When you add the speed of Murillo and Duncan on the flanks, the opposition has to be weary of counter attacks on top of the fact that the outside backs can keep up with the quickest of wingers. It could be another frustrating afternoon for the hosts.   

Weaknesses: Four points from three matches and seventh spot in the standings is not where anyone in the Red Bull organization envisioned the team to be. Complaining about the Champions League schedule can only get you so far when lose to the likes of Orlando. Let’s see where they might struggle this weekend.

Unfillable Holes: We like to play devil’s advocate to our own takes sometimes. Although the Red Bulls only transferred out one player of note last season, that player perhaps encapsulated the ethos of this franchise more than any other. Tyler Adams signed his first professional contract at the age of sixteen with Red Bulls II, the first team’s USL affiliate. After just one season he transitioned to the first team and played significant minutes from the start of his first full season with the senior roster (making 24 appearances). A successful second season got him on the radar of RB of Leipzig. With the familial connection between the two teams, along with Jesse Marsch’s move to Germany that earned Adams a move to the Bundesliga this past offseason.

Neither Sean Davis nor Marc Rzatkowski have the same skillset as Adams, nor do they have as high of a ceiling, and the transfer itself—due to MLS structures—did not garner buying power to replace his productivity. They are much slower in transitioning out of the midfield and the work rate of the youngster has been visibly absent from the center of the pitch. Such an inability to replace key departures is indicative of the league’s shortcomings in general as it becomes a selling entity, but the trend will provide Chicago some comfort heading into this weekend.

To round out the missing spark brought to the side by Adams, there are two other significant contributors missing from this Red Bull side for different reasons. After returning from a right ACL tear that kept him out of the second half of last season, Florian Valot was subbed off in the thirty-fifth minute of the San Jose match with a left ACL tear. It’s an elevated loss given his bright start to the season and with the primary transfer window closed around the world, an equivalent replacement will not be forthcoming.

Too add to the midfield woes, last year’s breakout addition, Kaku, has cemented himself into MLS lore of the bizarre. Less than twelve months into his stay at the Red Bulls, he and his agent attempted to manufacture a move to Liga MX powerhouse Club America. Stories from a lack of respect, low wages, and higher ambition for the player to downright ludicrous accusations of unpaid cab rides and furniture movers impacting his psyche surfaced from his camp as the move looked almost certain to go through. However, with Club America not coming anywhere near Red Bull’s valuation of their playmaker he wasn’t going anywhere. Instead he finds himself still in New Jersey, specifically in Armas’ doghouse. A no-nonsense kind of guy, Armas will not allow for such individualism to tear apart a locker room, even if it slightly impacts the quality on the field. Perhaps Kaku can work his was back into the squad, but he isn’t there quite yet. A good sign for the Fire.

Traveling is Hard: The Red Bulls have yet to win on the road this season and while two fixtures do not make a trend, a glimpse at last year’s results is revealing. Of their seven losses on the season, six of them came away from home. Additionally, the Red Bulls won just four of their fixtures away from Red Bull arena, two of which were against bottom dwellers Chicago and San Jose. When they traveled to playoff placed teams, they only mustered a victory against DC United. It seems that coming up against tougher opposition away from home is a hurdle, even for a team of Red Bull’s quality.

Prediction: We’ve been optimistic in this column thus far this season. We’ll stick with that mentality. Chicago 4-3 New York. A Bradley Wright Phillips hattrick for the visitors. Sapong, Nikolic, McCarty, and a ninety-third minute winner from Gaitan for the hosts.

Filed under: 2019 Regular Season

Tags: Chicago Fire

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