Match previews

Preview: Union at New York Red Bulls

Photo: Michael Long

What: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls
Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, NJ
When: Saturday, August 17 at 8 pm
Watch: NBC Sports Network
Referee: Jair Marrufo; Linesman: Eric Boria, Corey E Rockwell; Fourth official: Jorge Gonzalez

This is not a difficult preview. Cross your fingers, cross your toes, hope that Cahill never shows.

Thierry Henry? Whatever. Dax McCarty? Yawn. New York is only a title contender when Tim Cahill is in the lineup. Without the energetic Australian, Thierry Henry goes into video game mode and tries to be everywhere; McCarty chases play and ends up far away from his best positions. Peguy Luyindula… continues to make Lionard Pajoy look like a real soccer player.

Red Bull gives you wings, doesn’t heal injuries

According to the latest reports, both Cahill and Thierry Henry are expected to take part in Saturday night’s match. Henry is a known quantity: If he gets into the right positions, the Frenchman is simply unstoppable. Incredibly, Red Bulls coach Mike Petke allows Henry to stray from his best spots when Tim Cahill is absent from the lineup, turning New York from a contender into a spear without a point. Thus, Cahill’s presence or absence is the biggest storyline heading into this weekend.

Since a four game winning streak in late April and early May that shot them up the standings, the Red Bulls have been textbook mediocre at 4-4-3. Most recently, a thrilling win over Sporting Kansas City preceded a bellyflop shutout loss to Columbus.

The thrillingness of the victory over Sporting obscured New York’s almost complete inability to create anything offensively. The three goals came off of: a) A fifty-fifty win in midfield that fell to Jonny Steele’s feet behind the defense, b) An atrocious attempt at an offside trap by Aurelien Collin, and c) A fast break off a brilliant throw by Luis Robles. Show me the video of Mike Petke writing that plan up on his whiteboard. The Red Bulls put all five of their shots (yes, they only had five) on net against SKC, a shooting percentage that is about as sustainable as a waffle diet. The loss to Columbus shows a more reasonable two out of seven shots on goal.

Cahilla or nothing

NYRB dominated Houston for a 2-0 win

Without Tim Cahill, everything changes for New York. Everything.

Sans Thierry Henry, New York simply plugs in a lesser striker and goes about their business. When Cahill is out, the team’s other influential players attempt to fill his role and end up watering down their own effectiveness. As heat maps show, Henry tends to play deeper when Cahill is absent while McCarty tries to get into more forward positions. For both players, this compromises their effectiveness.

NYRB blew away Montreal

NYRB blew away Montreal

McCarty is, ideally, a recycler. He keeps the ball moving, pops up all over the pitch, and uses his engine to get involved and allow the rest of his midfield to get forward with confidence. When McCarty himself is asked to step forward and be more of a creative force, he leaves his comfort zone and finds only mixed success. In Henry and Espindola, New York has two of the smartest channel-runners in MLS, so a player with McCarty’s skill won’t look as lost as he actually is in those higher positions.

Three goals against the run of play masked the price of Cahill's absence

Three goals against the run of play masked the price of Cahill’s absence

Henry is, or should be, a goalscorer and final third creator. When his reliable partner is not in the hole, however, Henry takes it on himself to check extremely deep to start plays rather than finish them. Heat maps show the Frenchman gets involved in deeper positions when his Aussie companion is missing.

Union midfield questions

If Cahill is available, expect a Union lineup that replicates the eleven seen against DC United. Keon Daniel is comfortable/insists on playing a deeper role than Michael Farfan and John Hackworth is likely to favor this setup with both Cahill and McCarty on the pitch.

One of the biggest questions for the Union is whether Keon Daniel can replicate last week’s performance against stronger competition. Cahill and McCarty can chase with the best of them, and time and space will be hotter commodities than they were a weak ago. A more conservative central pairing could backfire on Hackworth if it means the Red Bulls have to cover less distance defensively.

Sebastien Le Toux adapted well to a role on the left against DC United, though he faced little pressure and had more time to think than a guy waiting for Comcast. This won’t be the case against the Red Bulls. Both Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele get back well, provided they aren’t out of position. Steele, in particular, can get caught too high and leaves space that Roy Miller struggles to fill alone. With this in mind, Hackworth might prefer to move Le Toux to the right where he can exploit the emptiness behind Steele and work with Sheanon Williams.

Requisite Danny Cruz critique… or is it

This is not specific to Cruz, but generalizable to speed wingers who like to stay high up the pitch. New York has been completely unable to go through the middle this season, so shutting down the flanks will force the Union’s opponent to rely on a strategy they don’t know how to use.

Perhaps framing this as an anti-Cruz issue is the wrong tact. Essentially, the Union have five (six, if you count Fabinho) midfielders in rotation and, with each offering a different skill set, stamping Cruz’s name on the sheet every week seems either nepotistic or poorly thought out.

While this is sure to rile those who are unwaveringly certain that PSP plays favorites: Michael Farfan is the best option on the wing against the Red Bulls. Farfan plays deeper and gets forward with the goal of possessing or crossing rather than creating a break. The Miller-Farfan and Holgersson-Farfan matchups are heavily weighted in the Union’s favor, and Hackworth should be loathe to miss out on them. This move pushes Le Toux to the left where he can get involved early by cutting into the space left when McInerney and Casey inevitably come deep.

Gaddis over Fabinho

Let’s make this short and sweet: If Ray Gaddis is available, he should start at left back.

Gaddis has his faults, but building a solid back line is more important than providing service from the left back position at this point in the season. The Union are getting reasonably good service from Sheanon Williams, and they can move Le Toux to the left if they need balls coming in off both flanks. Gaddis stays at home and provides the cover Philly will need against Fabian Espindola. The Red Bulls hitman loves to run the channel between the central defender and the left outside back. Gaddis is no wizard at shutting down space, but he will be closer to the space than Fabinho, who prefers life in the final third.

Fabinho to left midfield is a more reasonable argument, and if you want to slot him in ahead of Michael Farfan and move Le Toux to the right, I won’t argue.

Prediction: Union 1-1 NYRB (with Cahill: Union 1-2 NYRB)

Both Sporting Kansas City in first place and Montreal in fourth place have winnable games this weekend, so while the New York-Philly winner isn’t likely stay in first place for more than 28 hours, the loser could easily slide down to fourth.

The table is deceptive right now, as the top three teams have played two more games compared to the next three in line. Philly’s roller coaster home form means the team has to be thinking about a fast start any time they go on the road. This Union squad has not been adept at late innings defense, so grabbing goals on the road will go a long way toward assuring that any breakdowns still leave the good guys with a point.

Showdowns with New York are always exciting, but rarely have they allowed the teams the chance to leapfrog the other in the standings. All wins may be created equal, but these three points will mean more than most to the Union’s confidence if they get them.

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