Match previews

Preview: Union at NYRB

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: Red Bull Arena
When: Sunday, May 24 at 5 pm
Watch: Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes, Fox Sports Go
Whistle: Baldomero Toledo; Linesmen: Craig Lowry, Gianni Facchini; Fourth official: Kevin Terry Jr.

The Eastern Conference is easy to understand: There are four good teams and everybody else is hoping for a hot streak. Philadelphia is 1-2-0 against those top tier squads this season, and they face the fourth Sunday night in New Jersey.

New York Red Bulls are best understood through the lens of the 2014 Philadelphia Union. That team was built to dominate the center of the park through the power of Maurice Edu, the ball movement of Vincent Nogueira, and the guile of Cristian Maidana. It never (or rarely, at least) happened.

The touchlines exert an almost gravitational pull on Maidana and Nogueira, and the Union midfield roamed too much to perform as a modern triangle that suffocates space in the center of the park. New York has flipped the Union’s triangle and added a new twist by playing with a winger that also drifts to the middle. And in 2015, they have been one of the top midfields in MLS even with Sacha Kljestan still searching for his role.

Kljestan (16) and Felipe  (8) can both step into traditional number ten positions during a match.

Kljestan (16) and Felipe (8) can both step into traditional number ten positions during a match.

Men in the middle

A large part of what makes the Red Bulls midfield so interesting is its flexibility. Columbus has a midfield capable of brilliance, and New England can pass through a defense as well as anybody in MLS, yet both teams struggle to adjust when they meet a well-organized defense. In contrast, the New York midfield begins as a structured 2-1 system with Felipe and Dax McCarty controlling space behind Kljestan. Both deeper-lying players feel out the midfield space as the match develops and step forward when they find gaps. For teams that are poorly organized or inflexible, attacking players fail to track the deep runs of McCarty or Felipe, giving them freedom to dance around striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is an excellent distributor (3 key passes/match).

The only team to find an answer to the New York midfield this season was New England. The Revs handed the Red Bulls their first loss of 2015 by deploying two intelligent holding midfielders to track midfield runs and cut off service to the top. This ploy was made to look extremely effective since Jesse Marsch left Wright-Phillips on the bench, as if trying to prove to himself that he needed a smart hold-up player to make his system purr. New York outscored the Revs 1-0 in the 30 minutes BWP was on the pitch.

BWP's passing vs NYCFC: Dropping deep and wide to become a creator.

BWP’s passing vs NYCFC: Dropping deep and wide to become a creator.

The particular brand of genius that Wright-Phillips brings to his side is an understanding of when to check off the back line and when to hold it high to give his midfield space. This ability to read his teammates makes Wright-Phillips unpredictable and a constant danger. With willing midfield runners at all three central positions and Mike Grella coming inside from the left, BWP can check deep or wide and trust that someone will fill his space with a darting foray into the box. Wright-Phillips has learned to use these runs when necessary, but last season he finally began understanding the value of staying central and pushing a back line deep.

In 2014, pushing a defense back was all about creating a pocket for Thierry Henry near the box. This season, the major aim is to open enough grass for Kljestan and Felipe to move forward with a head of steam.

And in defense

Another special feature of the New York midfield is how it can boss a team around without a pure defensive midfielder. Columbus employs similar tactics defensively, with Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp smothering counterattacks and eating up recoveries in the middle of the park.

But Columbus asks much less of those players in terms of offensive running, meaning they are rarely making their way through the opponent’s box when the counterattack begins. For the Red Bulls, there is a much higher chance that a holding midfielder will be caught upfield, and it is therefore much more important that the team understands how to react when such an event occurs.

NYRB defense vs NYCFC: Owning the loose balls in the middle of the park.

NYRB defense vs NYCFC: Owning the loose balls in the middle of the park.

In many cases, New York will collapse Mike Grella into the center if a central midfielder is caught too high, opening the right flank and trusting Kemar Lawrence at left back to track runners. The Red Bulls complement this strategy with a high defensive line, a luxury they can usually afford since an active midfield keeps enough pressure on opponents to prevent accurate long passes.

By compressing space in midfield — even when a player is caught out of position — New York has become an incredibly difficult team to counterattack against. However, these tactics have also exposed one glaring weakness in the Red Bulls’ defense. Though they have quickly jelled into a formidable, surprisingly reliable pairing in the back, Damien Perrinelle and Matt Miazga are slow on the turn and poor at man marking. Of the nine goals New York has given up this year, six have come off of crosses, corners and indirect free kicks. That’s only one less than the unformidable, surprisingly unreliable Union back line.

NYRB defense vs New England: Pushed deeper up the gut.

NYRB defense vs New England: Pushed deeper up the gut.

Essentially, the soft underbelly of the New York defense is exposed when they have to retreat. Anything direct or in the air they can handle (Miazga and Perrinelle win 8.9 of their 12.5 aerial duels per match). But get them running backwards and that aerial prowess disappears.

Can the Union do it?

The trick, then, is to find wingers in enough space to run at and behind the fullbacks. Oh, and get bodies into the box (this means you, Mr. Maidana). Jim Curtin said Wednesday that Fernando Aristeguieta could be available off the bench against New York if he doesn’t make the cut with the Venezuela national team for Copa America, which suggests Conor Casey will continue up top for the Union. Casey was an excellent hold up striker against DC United, and he will have an even bigger role to play on Sunday. By playing through Casey, the Union can keep Perrinelle and Kari Ouimette (who will likely start in place of Matt Miazga) in the center of the pitch, giving their wings a chance to isolate and attack down the flanks.

One of those wingers may be CJ Sapong, who has been cleared to rejoin the team again. Sapong’s direct running and physical presence in the box should mean that Andrew Wenger returns to the bench after a middling performance against DC United. Sapong and Sebastien Le Toux should be good outlets, but their contributions will likely be determined by the back line’s ability to pass out of pressure.

New York’s midfield pressure is excellent, and they will attempt to force the Union to play through the offensively-challenged central defense. Among Ethan White, Richie Marquez, and perhaps Steven Vitoria, someone will need to show a calmness on the ball that allows the Union to play through Maidana. Jesse Marsch’s side is willing to expand to press the backs when they believe there is a weak link, and Philly’s success may be determined by how often they are able to successfully play on the ground and around New York’s pressure.

Perrinelle and Ouimette passing vs Dallas: More time on the ball than Jesse Marsch would like.

Perrinelle and Ouimette passing vs Dallas: More time on the ball than Jesse Marsch would like.

Pressing the backs

Defensively, Philadelphia’s best strategy will be to cut off passing lanes between the defense and midfield. New York’s defense does not want to spend too much time on the ball. They are a more effective attacking unit when they can quickly get the ball into midfield and use their superior technicians to break down a defense. All of the Red Bulls midfielders are averaging 55 passes per game or more (McCarty is averaging an absurd 71); this is not a team that wants to pass around the back. They want to get out.

In New York’s last match, Dallas forced Perrinelle and Ouimette to be the primary ball handlers for extended periods of time. And though the central defenders were not awful, it was clear that the Red Bulls’ rhythm was disrupted.

UnionNYRB2Prediction: Red Bulls 1-1 Union

Maurice Edu is as good of a matchup for Bradley Wright-Phillips as MLS can offer, but he is suspended. The Union will likely sit Brian Carroll deep to track Sacha Kljestan’s runs and cut off BWP from the midfield. Carroll is the only healthy player that can provide a high level of protection to what will be a cut-n-paste back line. If Philly can keep Wright-Phillips from being a central part of the New York attack, they can contain the Red Bulls.

But even after a shutout against DC, it is hard to trust this defense (particularly with Fabinho returning to it). Given New York’s strong home record, it is hard to believe the Union are about to embark on a winning streak.

Sure would be nice, though.


  1. pragmatist says:

    Welcome back, CJ. The timing couldn’t be better.

  2. alicat215 says:

    I have a bad feeling about this one………real bad. I didn’t feel this way against United……..

  3. I’m going to this game and I’m not as optimistic as this prediction.

  4. Predicting a tie, on the road, to a superior and well-performing team, without our best player, seems absurd, frankly. I couldn’t believe that we beat DCU, but they had had a midweek game and were very tired, and without several starters. So, OK, we were their letdown game on the road. Is there any reason to believe that NYRB is going to let down here? Because on paper this would be a tough game even with Edu, and without him it looks like a rout.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @scottso – Possibly absurd, yeah. But New York scored 2 goals in 4 of their first 5 games and have only scored more than 1 once in the last five. They’ve had a ton of trouble generating offense now that teams are treating BWP like the creator he is and not just a simple target striker. Additionally, Kari Ouimette is unlikely to keep playing mistake-free soccer as a CB. So I’m saying there’s a chance.

      • alicat215 says:

        Like Lloyd Christmas getting together with Mary Swanson………… you’re saying there’s a chance?

      • OK, so maybe some teams have figured out NYRB’s offense to some extent. But this week, we will have a back line consisting of the sometimes-underperforming Williams, the rookie Marquez, the sometimes-serviceable White, and the spectacularly-inconsistent Fabinho. Does this seem like the ticket to handle BWP, Kljelstan, and Lloyd Sam?? Sometimes knowing what the other team will do doesn’t translate into being able to stop it.

      • Perhaps it’s the negadelphia in me, but I agree with Scottso. Anything is possible of course, but I think it’s more entirely likely we lose 2 or 3 nil than draw 1-1….especially with that back line. We have 0 reserve defenders!!

        Is Nando back this week? If so – he needs to start.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Agree. I could see a 2-0 or 3-0 stinker.
        Casey has been a more effective striker than Nando. Plus, he is a Red Bull slayer. I’d start Casey, or go two up top.

      • ScottyMac says:

        By “effective ” do you mean “zero goals”?

      • The Black Hand says:

        Fantastic counter, Scotty. Effective may have been the wrong choice of word because, ultimately, he has yet to score…and Fernando Aristeguieta has. But, Conner Casey could have easily had a brace, last game…if his finish was honed…and it definitely wasn’t. Casey is stronger in possession and he is far more familiar with MLS play. Nando is struggling with the amount of contact that is allowed in the MLS and it has him off his game. Casey doesn’t have that issue and will improve with minutes (the old man still has a couple if tricks). I like that Casey will carry out wide and try to create something. I really haven’t seen that out of the Venezuelan.
        I think that they could be a formidable pairing…with quality play from our wide midfield, but we have been struggling to display any of that.

  5. I’ve done all I can for the Union this weekend – I have added BWP to my fantasy roster just for this game. Guaranteed straight red in the first 20 minutes.

  6. If we have Sapong and Nando available off the bench I will feel slightly better.

  7. Great One says:

    The closing argument of “the union will only succeed if they play the ball on the ground out of the back” told me all I needed to know. None of those guys, save maybe Shaenon are adept at playing the ball on the ground, White doesn’t even have the slightest inclination. We are on the road, we will bunker and bomb. If we can hold on at the back and steal one on a mistake by their back line then we may get the draw. If they score early we are in big trouble.
    That said, first game of the year I won’t be able to watch, not too upset though since I’ll be watching Arsenal at the Emirates from my seats in 116 sunday.
    On that note, does anyone know if this Union game is one of the ones being broadcast at English pubs? That may be fun to try and catch around 10pm.

  8. The Black Hand says:

    If we are relying on Carroll to “provide a high level of protection…”, we are in trouble. Carroll hasn’t provided a “high level” of anything in years. He gets in the way of play (sometimes) and relies on strong CB play. We won’t have that. Possession is going to be a problem. This one could get ugly…quickly.

  9. Scottymac says:

    1-1, love it!!! Feel the positivity!! We’re Posidelphians now.

    We get CJ back!! And you know, Casey will be there. And Marquez!!! And…BC7..and Wenger…


    We’re toast.

  10. Since there are no outstanding teams in the MSL, any team can win on any given day. In a general sense, the NYRB are one of the best pressure teams in the league, well coached and seeming all in regarding their tactics. The Union on the other hand , is fairly disorganized with no clear understanding of what they want to do. Nevertheless, by simply using a regression to the mean concept, the Union can get a decent result, but dont get your hopes up, this is a really poor team right now, and as they get closer to the mean, they will probably do poorly again.

  11. Not so sure about Sapong in the starting 11 after just coming back with questionable match fitness. Why not start Ayuk there? Or perhapes even better, Pfeffer after he finished last game quite strongly?

    • The Black Hand says:

      Given the season that we have had, I think that Sapong should come off the bench. Throwing him in the XI could result in the dreaded hammy, if his conditioning wasn’t maintained in Malibu. Let’s hope that CJ did a lot of running on the beaches.
      Give Pfeffer the nod. See if he and Maidana can weave some magic.

    • +1

      Is nando back?

      • The Black Hand says:

        No clue. Seeming more and more unlikely that he is going to be available.

  12. Kind of amusing to have tactical masterminds plugging people into positions like russian dolls.

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