Match previews

Preview: Union vs New York Red Bulls

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs New York Red Bulls
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, August 1 at 7 pm
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Armando Villarreal; Linesmen: Craig Lowry, Scott Kachmarik; Fourth Official: Nima Saghafi

New York Red Bulls’ (8-6-5, 3rd) last competitive game was a US Open Cup defeat. You may remember it.

Philadelphia Union (6-12-4, 9th) have since squandered the momentum from their USOC quarterfinal win on a come-from-ahead loss to DC United. And unfortunately for the Union, there were a lot of clear lessons for Jesse Marsch to learn from DC’s triumph.

New York will have new signing Shaun Wright-Phillips available, and the Union may wring a late cameo out of new signing Tranquillo Barnetta.

Barnetta fills a need for the technician-starved Union, while Wright-Phillips seems an odd signing for a Red Bulls side that has struggled to find a place for a traditional winger like Sal Zizzo.

Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam sitting in the channels vs NE (NY won 4-1)

Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam sitting in the channels vs NE (NY won 4-1)

Wide then inside

The Red Bulls have sneaky-good wide players in Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam. That sneakiness is partially their own fault — both can be extremely streaky — and partly due to the praise heaped on the midfield trio between them.

Sam and Grella are not of the same ilk as Sebastien Le Toux, Andrew Wenger, and Eric Ayuk. Whereas the Union wingers provide width, Red Bulls ask their wide men to be the vertical option. And not vertical as in, “go sprint up that field and we’ll hit some balls to ya.” The verticality Jesse Marsch wants is of a deep-in-the-final-third variety.

Bradley Wright-Phillips’ comfort in a playmaking role gives New York four top-tier technicians in the center of the pitch, a potentially useful tactical tool that can quickly turn into a nightmare of short passing and little else (see 2014-15 Liverpool or the 2010 Champion’s League semi-final matches between Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona).

The backstory

But the benefits of dropping a striker into midfield are clear. The 4-2-3-1 formation employed in various iterations by so many MLS sides aims to clog the middle of the pitch defensively, making connections between the midfield and striker near impossible. Many teams respond by leaving a target striker high to push the defensive line deep and create space for an attacking midfielder who can act as an offensive pivot near the top of the box. Players like Diego Valeri and Javier Morales can thread the ball out wide or get cute and dink a pass through the defense from that dangerous spot on the pitch just outside the corners of the penalty area.

This is a case of what is old is new again: Attacking midfielders used to thrive in the danger zone at the top of the box, turning a high press on its head by sliding behind the midfield and forcing larger, slower central defenders to mark them. The proliferation of three-man midfields, culminating in the doldrums that was attacking play in the 2010 World Cup, allowed defenses to press high while reserving a man to protect the danger zone.

Two solutions emerged: The creative winger and, a bit later, the offset trequartista. The creative winger — with Arjen Robben as the prototype and Eden Hazard as the next evolutionary step — isolated a defender, beat them, and was able to cut inside to shoot or distribute. To control these players, defenses had to pull someone out of the middle, which leaves the area in front of the box unprotected.

The offset trequartista only entered the frame when teams began dropping a creative midfielder deep enough to distribute past a midfield. A high press would get caught too high, and two passes could bypass the defense and get an attacking middie alone in space. And the best space turned out to be in the channels because modern attacking fullbacks pinned their counterparts back and created a new hole in front of the backline between the fullback and central defender. This is where the offset trequartista sets up. You know him as Chaco Maidana.

Bradley Wright-Phillips all passes (no incompletions!) in a dominant first half vs NE

Bradley Wright-Phillips all passes (no incompletions!) in a dominant first half vs NE

MLS teams have tried various tactics to put creative players into that holiest of holes. NYCFC rolled with the lol-worthy Adam Nemec to allow David Villa the freedom to live in the left channel. Last year, Real Salt Lake used narrow wide midfielders in those channels.

The Marsch solution

Red Bulls goes a step further than RSL by pulling Wright-Phillips into midfield and attempting to engineer the defensive confusion that has been produced by strikerless formations in Europe. The role of the wingers, then, is to stay wide enough to be outlets when the ball is in midfield, then read play and dart forward to be creative hubs once a chance to attack appears. Thus, when Sacha Kljestan turns, finds that he has space, and advances, Lloyd Sam is narrow enough to be an option that can create instant chaos in the box, and not just a cross.

Need evidence? See either of Red Bulls first two goals against New England.

Lloyd Sam key passes vs Philly in the USOC quarterfinal.

Lloyd Sam key passes vs Philly in the USOC quarterfinal.

Why not last time?

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, that sounds like it would work pretty well against the Union’s 4-2-3-1.”

Yeah, it did.

John McCarthy’s big day and some woeful finishing kept Philly in a USOC quarterfinal they had no business winning, but counting on a goalie to make nine saves is no way to go through a season.

The first time these teams met, the Red Bulls had yet to figure out exactly how to use their wingers. Kljestan was tasked with getting into those creative gaps in the channels, and Philly’s midfield did extremely well protecting the dangerous area in front of the box when he did.

Nogueira and Carroll squeezing the creativity out of the NYRB midfield during a May 24 away win.

Nogueira and Carroll squeezing the creativity out of the NYRB midfield during a May 24 away win.

This weekend, the Union will have more to do than they did in the Open Cup because Vincent Nogueira’s injury will likely force Zach Pfeffer into a deeper midfield role again. For all the young middie’s talents, dictating the pace of play has yet to emerge from his toolbox. Paired with Brian Carroll, who disrupts metronomes but does not emulate them, Pfeffer absolutely needs to work harder to become the central hub of the Union offense.

Big ask? Indeed. But nobody else on the roster is likely to do it better than Pfeffer, so he needs to take responsibility and make it happen.

In the future, Philly will be able to ask Tranquillo Barnetta to fill this role, but the Swiss international is very unlikely to play extended minutes this weekend, if he plays at all.

Philly kept NY out of the danger zone on May 24

Philly kept NY out of the danger zone on May 24

Sapong at the center of it all

Offensively, improvements from Pfeffer must be paired with a renewed insistence of playing through CJ Sapong. Both Toronto and DC squeezed out Cristian Maidana by letting a midfielder follow him out of the center, knowing that the Union midfield was unlikely to make forward runs into the space left behind. Sapong’s size and strength make him an ideal target, and his recent form suggests that he deserves to be the centerpiece of the offense in Nogueira’s absence.

The idea of starting Sapong and Fernando Aristeguieta side-by-side is appealing in theory, but impractical until Barnetta is fully in the fold. If the former Schalke man lives up to his billing as an elite passer, he and Nogueira have the range to start breakouts from deep, allowing the Union to bypass the mediatory Maidana and connect directly to the strikers. Without Barnetta, Philly does not have the passing ability to bridge the gap between strikers and deep-lying midfielders, as the opening half of the season showed far too clearly.

Predicted lineup

Predicted lineup

Prediction: Union 1-2 NYRB

The Energy Drinks dominated the Union even before Conor Casey’s red card last week. Expecting different, especially with Nogueira sidelined, would be irrational. That said, the Union know that if they can isolate Le Toux and Ayuk deep in New York’s half — as in, below the top of the box — they can attack Connor Lade and Anthony Wallace. The problem all season has been getting wingers into those dangerous areas, and the Union have shown far too little attacking impetus when they involve the wingers in the middle third.

The Union need to take points at home in order to make the increasingly unlikely climb back into the playoff race. New York needs to take points on the road if they want to keep up with Toronto FC and New England.

This is likely to be another counterattacking performance at PPL Park. If Philly can fix the defensive pressing mistakes that plagued them against DC United, they can challenge the Red Bulls. If not, expect another three goals in the net. And don’t expect a magical opening four minutes again.


  1. This is the match where we are really going to see how valuable Nogueira is. With NYRB’s pressing style, it plays right into Nogueira’s wheelhouse which is why he’s played such a prominent role in our two wins at RBA.

    Adam Nemec is truly lol-worthy. How that guy gets selected for Slovakia, I’ll never understand.

  2. I wish they would put Barnetta in to start and sub ZP in for him. I have a feeling everyone knows what is going to happen if ZP starts instead of Nog

  3. Why not start out 5-4-1- like Chelsea did a few days ago and press selectively only the non-central defenders of the red bulls. see how the game develops, then maybe look to snatch a goal. There is no chance to play even up in terms of style. To disrupt may perhaps give the opportunity to win. Nothing wrong with jamming things up to create combat with their pressing style.Look to set up counter attacks mostly.

  4. I have a feeling this one’s going to be bad. Just looking at that prospective starting 11 + Bench graphic… we are so thin it hurts.

    Also with Nogueira out, I worry about Chaco. He is an entirely different player when Nogueira is on the pitch. With Vince’s injury, I feel like we don’t only lose him but we lose a bit of Maidana (amongst others) too.

    Welcome to Philly Quillo. Please work.

  5. I think that to have any chance at this game, we have to play Zach Pfeffer in a higher position than he played against DC. The guy is not a CDM, and he’s not really a box-to-box midfielder either. He should be played as an attacking midfielder. That gives us 2 creative threats in the midfield. Plus, if he’s not so far in the rear, Zach will GET IN THE BOX during the run of play, which neither Le Toux nor Ayuk seem interested in doing. Basically, the lineup as you have it, but instead of a 4-2-3-1, it’s a 4-1-4-1. I think with that lineup we score goals. The problem is that it puts a really big burden on Carroll. But we don’t have another defensive midfielder, so I don’t know that we have a better option. (Unless we put Mo there, which creates a bigger problem than it solves.)

  6. Also, one other emendation to your suggested XI — Blake should start in goal. Sylvestre has been solid, but Blake allegedly has a very high ceiling, and we need to see what he can give us now that he is finally healthy.

  7. The Little Fish says:

    Play. The. Kid. Do it! This roster is starting to really crystalize with the addition of Barnatta, the emergence of Sapong, and the Nogs/Chaco connection, and Nando getting healthy. ALL these guys are quality. Let’s add Blake to that list. Go Union. DOOP!!!!

  8. The Black Hand says:

    They’re getting my money tonight (Well, whoever own the seats in 105 is …). Red Bull, summer night…why not?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *