DC United's rivalry against the New York Red Bulls has occasionally been written off due to the lopsided record United has against their old foes from North Jersey. NYRB has just 18 wins over DC in 54 attempts, and until last season had lost six straight Atlantic Cups. Still, despite the records and the fact that both teams have overhauled their rosters in recent times, the rivalry is still fairly heated.
There is also the fact that the 2011 Red Bulls should end up being the best team that club has ever fielded. Sure, that's not a big challenge, but past returns should not lower expectations for New York's current squad. They aren't deep, but they have plenty of top-level talent and are reasonable favorites to win the Eastern Conference. This is not the years-long blooper reel that United fans are used to laughing at.
That said, the on-paper threat has not yet been backed up with any consistency. Coming off a comprehensive 3-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, the Red Bulls have two wins, two draws, and a loss, and had only managed two goals in their first four matches before exploding against the Quakes. While their defense has been stingy, their offense has been hit-or-miss.
Read on to get into the gritty details of Hans Backe's side:
We start, as always, with the likely NY formation:
The only question marks are Thierry Henry, who has been struggling with an Achilles problem all season, and Joel Lindpere (who had to have an MRI on his knee). However, both are expected to play Thursday. If Henry is rested, rising star Juan Agudelo will partner Luke Rodgers, fresh off scoring twice against the Quakes. Lindpere's replacement would be a bit more difficult to call; we could see Mehdi Ballouchy in that role (he's played as a pinched-in left midfielder before), but again it's likely that NY will come to RFK with a full-strength starting eleven. Bouna Coundoul will continue as the starting keeper despite the fact that Greg Sutton, who won the job in preseason only to be sidelined by a concussion, has returned to full training.
The talk surrounding the Red Bulls has been their impressive ability to dominate possession, which hasn't changed despite the addition of Dwayne De Rosario, who likes to take more risks than Ballouchy did as the team's playmaker. Much has been made of the ease with which Rafael Marquez and Tim Ream pass the ball, and having a lineup full of skilled players also helps possession. However, for me the biggest key has also been the guy that's gone under the radar: Teemu Tainio.
Tainio rarely gives the ball away and also excels at quietly getting in the way of opposing attacks. He's less of a marauding destroyer and more of a cerebral type defensively, while he is the metronome for the NY attack. Unlike many MLS teams who allow their more attacking central midfielder to set the tempo, the Red Bulls rely on Tainio, along with Marquez and Ream, to control the rhythm, freeing up De Rosario and Lindpere to go forward more often.
As such, a big key for United will also be one that might go unnoticed. When you have a team that plays so often through defensive players, you can disrupt everything they do if your attacking players can do a good job of harassing those players. A great example of this was USA vs. Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, where Bruce Arena played Landon Donovan at attacking midfield but made getting after lone defensive midfielder Gerardo Torrado his #1 priority. Mexico was baffled, made two early subs, and never really came to grips with the game on the way to a 2-0 loss.
The good news is that we have the players to do this effectively. Dax McCarty is pretty much the ideal midfielder in MLS for the job of disrupting Tainio's game, while our forwards have done a good job thus far of pressuring defenders when we don't have the ball. Even if we don't force a dangerous turnover like Philadelphia did against Ream, we can still make them play the kind of inelegant long ball that doesn't fit the style Backe has drilled into his team. Breaking up that triangle will force players like De Rosario and Lindpere into playing deeper, and any time you can force a possession team to play closer to their own goal, you're setting yourself up for success.
Speaking of territorial advantages, New York's win over San Jose also saw the Earthquakes play too deep of a line. Whether it was because they were afraid of the speed of Dane Richards or worried about the ability of Marquez and Ream to pick out runners with the long pass is hard to say, but what that deep line did was allow the Red Bulls to start their possessions much closer to goal. The long balls from NYRB's center backs didn't even have to be dangerous in and of themselves; by mixing them in with the longer spells of possession, NY kept the Quakes back four from stepping forward, which in turn allowed them to control the game in terms of territory.
The way to combat this is something easier said than done. United must play a high enough line to force NY to build up from midfield or deeper, rather than within 40 yards of the DC goal. Like DC, the Quakes have a slower left back in Ramiro Corrales; unlike San Jose, however, we have Dejan Jakovic in the center to offer up some better recovery speed than the Earthquakes had down the middle. Our line and our ability to disrupt Tainio, Marquez, and Ream will go hand-in-hand; succeed at one, and we should be able to succeed at the other.
The other defensive issue is set pieces, which we've been pretty poor on all season. Marquez takes the corners for NY, and though his deliveries haven't been anything special, they're still being delivered to a group of players who have a good sense of timing their runs and are able to evade markers. The important thing in this department will be winning the first ball in. United is the bigger, stronger team, so if the desire and focus are there, this shouldn't be a problem.
In the midfield, Ben Olsen will have a tricky decision to make on the right. Santino Quaranta would be the best option to help combat the influence of Lindpere, as both players are similarly hard-working and Tino can pinch inside to help cancel out the influential Estonian. However, Olsen could go the other way and play Andy Najar, whose attacking abilities would a) force Lindpere to defend more, b) drag Lindpere wider than he normally plays, and c) give us the best chance to get after Roy Miller, who is the weak link in NY's back four. Fred, who performed well against Toronto FC, would split the difference to some extent, though I see him being more similar to Quaranta in this particular choice.
Going forward, United can create chances by utilizing their collective speed and by moving intelligently. Marquez and Ream both give away a lot of speed to Charlie Davies, and I also like the possibility of seeing Chris Pontius running at Jan Gunnar Solli (who doesn't get very much help from Richards). Our attacks need to be incisive and quick, though, because NY has smart defensive players who will collapse back into a reasonable shape in short order. If we're ponderous with the ball, like against LA, the Red Bulls will likely be able to repel our attacks comfortably. Keeping the ball moving, and running well off the ball, will be crucial if we're to put some goals on the board.
There is the possibility that this could become a high-scoring game. The Red Bulls have a team with loads of attacking talent, while their defensive weakness on both flanks plays into our hands. The fact that the game is coming on a shorter turnaround probably favors DC to a certain extent, as NY has a much older lineup and has starters carrying injuries. Ideally, United can come out flying like they did against Toronto and get a lead, which will test the patience of NY and possibly get them away from the possession game they thrive in.