D.C. United Scouting Report: New York Red Bulls

Mike Petke can't help but be frustrated and confused by NYRB's roller coaster form. - Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls are among MLS's most predictable teams in terms of their tactics, but are arguably the least predictable in terms of their form and interest level. Will they be up for D.C. United's visit, or are they just counting on us to roll over and die like they did against Chivas USA last week?

The New York Red Bulls are a real threat to win the Eastern Conference. They're only two points behind the Montreal Impact, and have a better defense than the Quebecois side, while scoring more goals than their fellow contenders Sporting Kansas City. They've beaten every single team that would make the playoffs in the East if the regular season ended today, as well as the Houston Dynamo (in 6th by virtue of a tiebreaker), Real Salt Lake (currently topping the Supporters Shield table), and the LA Galaxy (defending champs, currently 2nd in the West). They start global superstar Thierry Henry, Premier League and World Cup veteran Tim Cahill, and accomplished MLS players like Dax McCarty and Jamison Olave.

The New York Red Bulls will never win anything. They're on a three game winless streak and have only picked up four wins in their last twelve games at a crucial point in the season. They just lost to Chivas USA, conceding three goals to a team that entered the match scoring less than one goal per game on average. They've also dropped points to D.C. United and Toronto FC. They're just 1-1-1 against the Columbus Crew, and have lost to the pre-Mike Magee Chicago Fire and the San Jose Earthquakes. They start laughingstock Roy Miller, minor league and indoor soccer veteran Jonny Steele, and MLS backup-quality players like Luis Robles and Brandon Barklage.

Janus himself (himselves? themselves?) would be impressed by the two-faced nature of the former Metrostars. From June 23rd through August 17th, they were shut out five separate times, yet also scored four goals on both Montreal and RSL, as well as three on Sporting. It's not just the results, it's the performances. For every crazy 4-3 shootout that would live in horrible human being Red Bull fan lore, there's a pathetic, toothless showing. Shep Messing has surely referred to both extremes as "unbelievable."

As such, scouting the Harrison Walking Billboards is strangely difficult. They have one of the most predictable starting elevens in MLS, yet they lurch from greatness to garbage. Montreal and Philadelphia both focused on staying narrow and hitting NYRB on the counter; the results were a 4-0 win over the Impact and a 3-0 loss to the Union. Thinking of them as one of those good home teams that are awful on the road is closer to a reliable guide, but there are just enough disappointing results at Red Bull Arena - 0-0 against Philly, 2-2 against Columbus, a 2-1 loss to Vancouver - to make you wonder.

Tactically, the Red Bulls are possibly the least complicated team in MLS. For months, they've been playing the most standard 442 a team can play. While that won't be changed tomorrow, Mike Petke may be making some changes in terms of personnel:

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The whole back four is in question at the moment. Every United fan's favorite Red Bull is Roy Miller, but our old friend is definitely out with an achilles injury. New signing David Carney is a left midfielder/left back with Australian national team experience, but he's only just arrived and is probably not match fit. Kosuke Kimura came on for him in the Chivas loss, and looks like he'll get the start.

Petke could also play Kimura at his preferred right back position and move Brandon Barklage out to the left. He could also repeat the unlikely experiment of playing Markus Holgersson at right back as well, but that would require Olave being ready to play. Currently, the former RSL center back was only able to train lightly as of Wednesday, making him seem like a doubt. My guess is that Petke will see this game as winnable without Olave - to be fair, we're really bad - and instead send out the same pairing he had last weekend.

Further forward, the unspectacular wide midfield options have been an obvious spot in need of an upgrade. However, Petke has publicly stated that Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele are holding on due to a lack of challengers. Lloyd Sam and Ruben Bover have had all season, and Cameroonian teenager Marius Obekop has been around for most of the season as well.

While Red Bulls fans often clamor for Sam - Petke's preferred supersub - to start on the right wing, it seems doubtful that he'll get the call. Sam doesn't defend much at all and just generally likes to run down the right wing and go 1v1 against defenders. Alexander can be very hit or miss, but his defensive effort is usually there even when his tendency to cut inside is bottled up and he becomes a passenger in the attack.

If anything, Steele may be closer to losing his spot to Obekop, who was brought on after the Northern Irishman was anonymous for 76 minutes against Chivas. Obekop has a lot to learn, but Steele hasn't impressed in a few weeks as teams have become more and more aware that he lacks the speed and quickness to round fullbacks. With Alexander and Steele both slower wide men who prefer to cut inside rather than get down the flank and hook in traditional crosses, the Red Bulls midfield is very predictable in terms of service.

Up front, of course, is Thierry Henry. On one hand, he's tied for the team lead in goals and has a moderate chance of putting up a 10 goal/10 assist season. On the other hand, he has only one goal in his last ten games. Most of what NYRB does revolves around Henry, so dealing with his tendency to drift left of center will be vital. Dejan Jakovic, looking at you buddy.

Thinking more on Henry, his legacy in this fixture is a complicated one. Club legends are forged by winning trophies and their play against arch rivals, right? Henry's been in more heated rivalries than this one, truth be told: The North Londen derby with Arsenal against Tottenham Hotspur, the pitched battles for Serie A supremacy with Juventus against AC Milan, and of course playing for Barcelona against Real Madrid.

Funny thing, though. In each of those rivalries, Henry was either playing for the clearly dominant side (Arsenal, who went years and years without losing to Spurs) or in a pairing of elite clubs where both teams had won a ton. That's not at all like his role in MLS, as the top dog at a club whose hated rival has generally been their worst nightmare

Henry clearly gets the idea that NYRB fans have memories that go back past his arrival at the club - hence the use of the Metrostars captain's armband - but he's never really been the guy to put them on equal footing in the Atlantic Cup. NYRB still has no trophies, and while Henry's goalscoring record is OK against United, it's not stellar. Furthermore, for every great goal he has against United, he's got a bizarre disappointment. He's scored direct from a free kick against us, but he's also been utterly destroyed by Chris Pontius earlier in the same game. And let's not forget one of the most Metro moments of all time.

United needs to make sure Henry has another game where his internal switch is in the "off" position. Getting after him early will help, as will stranding him from his teammates. Chivas, of all teams, did a good job of dropping a central midfielder deep so Henry's preferred starting point between the lines is less convenient. It helped that Carlos Alvarez - played at right midfield in a 4132 - was diligent about getting between Henry and Steele whenever possible. Essentially, Chivas worked hard to make some other NYRB player win the game. While Henry did finish the game with assists on both goals, both came on set pieces rather than in the run of play.

The fact that both NYRB wingers are on the slow side and prefer to drift inside means that staying narrow can leave them attacking a crowded area over and over again. They don't have the overlapping fullbacks to force teams to stay wide, either. Even if Barklage and/or Kimura gets forward, Barklage is slow enough that he should be easily defended while Kimura doesn't really use his left foot to cross and in any case has regressed from his high point with the Colorado Rapids in terms of bombing forward.

United must focus on defensive positioning and keeping a solid formation rather than chasing around. If the Red Bulls get space and time, they will take advantage. If the game is played in a phone booth, however, it will help in two ways. Defensively, it will leave the Red Bulls needing some magic to break through. When the ball gets turned over, United should be able to find some space on the counter given the lack of true holding midfielder staying underneath everyone else.

Applying pressure to the midfielders will also help quite a bit. The Red Bulls don't have a true creator anywhere in their midfield. No one is lacking in terms of skill on the ball, but ultimately they're looking to shuttle the ball to Henry more than anything else. If United can place Tim Cahill and Dax McCarty under regular pressure, they're going to end up passing backward regularly, which will mean a steady diet of long balls out of the back for an NYRB team that just isn't built to play that way.

The other major threat for the Red Bulls is playing Espindola in behind. Dan Kennedy was forced into three big saves early last week, and all of them were on Espindola as he chased down a through ball. Unfortunately for the Black-and-Red, Espindola works hard and makes his runs from many different angles rather than being predictable. The only place he probably won't pop up from is the left-center channel, since that would mean standing too close to Henry and compressing their space.

The job here is a team-wide one: United can't give anyone the time to spot and play these killer balls, while the back four will need to be quick when exchanging whose job it is to mark Espindola on a given attack. Unlike other noted pursuers of through balls like Marco Di Vaio, Espindola tends to stay onside because he runs along the back four before curling his run through a gap. Simple stuff like obstructing the early part of those movements can go a long way here.

Chivas had some success playing passes from the flanks across the top of the box until, eventually, someone will have an opening. This could work even better for United, given that the Olave-free Red Bulls center back pairing of Holgersson and Ibrahim Sekagya isn't the world's most mobile. There's little reason to play a bunch of normal crosses in here; instead, United should be focused overall on keeping the ball on the ground and using smart movement to get past a back four that lacks quickness.

As I mentioned before, NYRB scored two set piece goals. Corners and fouls should be avoided if at all possible. It's not so much the normal "big strong dude" threat; rather, it's Cahill and McCarty providing the biggest danger. Both players are clearly undersized for this sort of role, but they both have a good leap, know what sort of shoving and grabbing will and won't be tolerated, and they usually draw a smaller player as their man marker. Personally, I'd stick Perry Kitchen on Cahill while telling whoever marks McCarty to beat him to the punch in terms of initiating contact. Henry's service is usually pretty good, so United has to win these one-on-one battles in the box to keep a clean sheet.

At the other end, the Red Bulls have a big vulnerability on set pieces. Robles may be quick and agile, but he's likely the least physically imposing goalkeeper in MLS when it comes to coming out for crosses. He's at least somewhat aware of his inability to barrel through crowds, and thus stays on his line more often than most GKs in the league. United will need to make this count by offering up good service regularly, rather than our normally low ratio of corner kicks that someone might actually be able to direct on goal.

Without a threat to come out and grab everything, the balls coming in can be aimed closer to goal than normal, so there's no reason to be overly elaborate and try rehearsed plays that require three flick-ons or what have you. Keep it simple: Hard runs, driven crosses, and aim for the area between the penalty spot and the six yard box. If there's traffic, Robles will stay on his line. Teams that struggle with their intensity and their form tend to give up set piece goals, and the Red Bulls are certainly in the former category.

Ultimately, United has been given a pretty decent blueprint in the last three Red Bulls games on how to get an unexpected result here. The Red Bulls are a strong team in a lot of ways, but they have some fundamental flaws that make them predictable going forward and vulnerable in the back. United will need to consistently apply all of these lessons, however; we can't have yet another game where we take a couple plays off, because those plays will be goals for New York.

NYRB is in a bit of a funk right now in terms of form and their collective mentality, and forcing them to play at a slower pace through a clogged center of the field will likely remind them of what's been wrong lately. However, setting that sort of tone requires a far better start than we've seen recently. A repeat of the diabolical defending in the first few minutes against Montreal or the turnover bonanza United offered up TFC in the opening ten minutes last week will let the Red Bulls build some confidence up, and a confident NYRB is the kind of team that hangs four goals on visitors to RBA.

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