Looking back on yesterday's piece on the likely starting lineup that the New York Red Bulls will field against D.C. United tomorrow, it's clear how much the Metros have changed since last season. Only four regulars from 2014 are going to get starts, and injuries are only depriving Jesse Marsch of one starter (double agent Roy Miller) from last season. While United basically kept the gang together, the Red Bulls have - both through enforced moves and by changes they chose - revamped significantly.
The personnel moves are significant, but the bigger change is in approach. Last year's Red Bulls had some fluidity built into their midfield, tended to stand off their opponents a bit, and were patient going forward. The idea was to let Thierry Henry be the star of the show, and everyone else's role on both sides of the ball was based around giving Henry as much freedom as possible to be Henry.
Marsch wants to do things a lot differently, and it's not just because Henry is gone. All indications point to a long-term philosophical change in north Jersey. There's a new emphasis on pressing high up the field without the ball, and the formation itself seems a lot more rigid and organized. This is unquestionably a less skillful team: Henry's departure is huge, but don't ignore the fact that the criminally underrated Peguy Luyindula is on leave while pondering retirement. Those were the most skilled players Petke has, and no one that has come in for Marsch is on their level in terms of ability on the ball. However, Marsch has a harder-working group in place now, and if anything his Red Bulls are more of a typical MLS side these days.
That's not to say that this team is all work rate and no class. Bradley Wright-Phillips tied the MLS record for goals in a season last year. There's little chance he replicates that feat this time around, but those goals didn't happen by accident either. Lloyd Sam has troubled United in one way or another every time he's faced the Black-and-Red, and his goal in NYRB's opener underlined the threat he poses on the right wing. Those two have been joined by Sacha Kljestan - who despite being ignored by a certain national team coach managed plenty of starts for Belgian powerhouse Anderlecht - as well as Felipe. While we may all have nothing but disdain for the little Brazilian, there's no point in pretending that he isn't a talented, creative soccer player.
When looking at the Red Bulls in possession, we should start with Kljestan. Obviously any stats this early in the season are not indicative of any trends, but in their only game of the season Kljestan attempted 70 passes. That's despite the fact that both NYRB and Sporting KC played 3 central midfielders, and that the Sporks had the notoriously combative Roger Espinoza in the fold. Kljestan still demanded the ball throughout from his teammates, and looked like the clear focal point of NYRB's attack.
That's interesting, because he and Felipe appear to be playing each other's spots on the field. Kljestan's usage rate and the types of passes he was completing - virtually all side-to-side rather than penetrating behind the defense - point to him still being the player he was before leaving MLS: An energetic linking midfielder who can keep the tempo going. Yet on the field, he's in positions that a #10 would take up. It appears that Marsch intends to use Kljestan as more of a goal-scoring attacking midfielder rather than as a playmaker; Felipe took more chances from his deeper position than Kljestan did in terms of pass selection.
To prevent the Red Bulls from repeating their domination of possession in KC, United needs to deal with Kljestan first and foremost. Restricting him to backwards and sideways passes is a good thing, but letting him have 70 passes in this attacking midfield role would mean that DCU is too deep too often. Without an anchor man in Ben Olsen's 442, United will need to compress Kljestan's space by committee. Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud need to check back - but not stay deep for long periods - while Bobby Boswell's ability to step ahead of the defense to intercept passes or deny space will also be vital.
Felipe is next on the list, and I think that task is less complicated but also carries a bigger punishment if it's not completed. Felipe needs to be pressured, and his lack of size and strength need to be made into a factor. Despite the obvious urge for United players to kick him to pieces all game long, the object here needs to be physical play without committing fouls. The presence of referee Alan Kelly - who was booking people for diving when they didn't even dive - is a boon in this respect for United. Felipe is among MLS's vanguard in terms of playacting, and we can only hope that Kelly will come down on him hard for this form of cheating.
Defensively, I'm actually more worried about Sam than Wright-Phillips. In the past, Sam would be at his best playing as an old-school, "chalk on his boots" winger. The idea was to isolate the left back, get around him down the wing, and then either cross or cut inside the box looking to play a low, square pass for a runner. It wasn't anything complicated, but Sam is very good at that simple sort of game.
This season, however, it looks like Marsch wants him cutting inside at least some of the time. The idea is to make him more of a goal threat, because the rest of the team is a bit lacking in that department. It will be a project, but that link I left earlier indicates that he's already somewhat comfortable with the job. The best way to deal with Sam in this regard is to make it hard for NYRB to feed him the ball. If he's cut off from the rest of the team during build-ups, he won't be much of a factor beyond long balls. If the tie in KC is any indicator, Marsch does not want long balls being played often at all, so I'd rather see United force the Metros to choose between finding Sam with methods they're not comfortable with or not finding him at all.
BWP looked less comfortable with his new target man responsibilities, which makes perfect sense. He's a poacher, not a back-to-goal player. If anything, the Red Bulls should look to the more physically robust Kljestan when they need someone to post up and bring his teammates into play, but right now it looks like Wright-Phillips has the same facility with that responsibility as Hamdi Salihi did during his time here. If NYRB wants to keep using him this way, United should quite frankly allow it. Boswell and Steve Birnbaum will dominate those moments, and should make it very difficult for BWP to find teammates and then get in behind.
On the left wing, Mike Grella's job is to work hard defensively and then get into scoring positions at the back post or running the channel between the opposing right back and right-center back. Sean Franklin is going to have to be very alert in tracking the one-time United trialist, but if he can keep him marked up I don't expect Grella to offer much else. It's a job that demands constant focus from Franklin, though, because Grella as always had a reputation for being a hungry, persistent player.
Going forward, United should be comfortable engaging the Red Bulls more than they were last year (where the object in this fixture, if we're being honest, was to grind and counter). The reason is simple: NYRB's brand new back four has been hit by injuries. Even at full strength I'd have urged United to be a little more open, but now that Roy Miller is out and Ronald Zubar is questionable I think it's impossible to resist. Zubar looks decent enough, but even if he does start he'll be surrounded by what looks like a group of guys that should be on the bench of a playoff team rather than starting.
On the right, I love the idea of seeing Chris Rolfe getting to test the soccer IQ of Chris Duvall. Duvall tends to lose his positional sense a couple of times a game, and when presented with complicated decisions he needs too long to sort out what he's supposed to do. The Red Bulls are probably going to sell out to prevent United from finding Rolfe - much like we should with Sam - but United has the option of looking for Chris Pontius in the air. A simple flick-on or knockdown header from a long ball isn't exactly sexy soccer, but if it gets Rolfe (United's most entertaining current starter by some distance) on the ball, I'm all for it.
Rolfe will also be able to threaten when he cuts inside, because the central defense of Zubar (or Matt Miazga) and Damien Perrinelle looks susceptible to quick combinations at the top of the box. Dax McCarty is probably going to spend a lot of time in that area due to the unfamiliarity of the back four, but he's only one man. United should be able to pick the lock down the middle, and it shouldn't take David Villa-level skill to do so.
Out on the left, I think United will try to target Kemar Lawrence early. Lawrence will be making his MLS debut, and he's only 22. The Red Bulls will have an awfully difficult time denying United the option of both Rolfe and Nick DeLeon, so if I'm right about them picking Rolfe as the danger man it should be much easier to feed the ball out to the right wing. DeLeon has always come up with above-average performances at Red Bull Arena, and he should be looking to attack on the dribble from the start.
There is an issue with this game that worries me a bit, though: United is short on attacking subs. With yesterday's news that Michael Farfan and Collin Martin are both dealing with groin strains, and the fact that Luis Silva and Michael Seaton are not yet fit enough to play, United will only have Miguel Aguilar and Conor Doyle available to spice up the attack. This may be a game where we see Franklin or Taylor Kemp pushed into the midfield out of necessity in the late going.
As such, it's of the utmost importance that United gets into halftime without falling behind. That doesn't mean taking up a conservative mindset, however; I think Olsen needs to look to score the first goal and push this unfamiliar NYRB group into chasing the game. We've seen what United can do on the counter, and getting that first goal will allow United to emphasize that part of their game against a team that hasn't mastered their defensive rotations in transition yet. Obviously "score first" is a) something every team wants to do and b) not something you can just make happen by saying it aloud, but it seems like chasing this game is not going to work out for either team.
From set pieces, I like United's chances to create danger. The Red Bulls are the smaller team and I'd argue that they're the less focused side as well. Luis Robles often has to stay on his line because he lacks the size and power to go catch or punch corners away, and he can be susceptible to traffic inside the six as well. The main issue for United will be service: Without Fabian Espindola, United's use of dead balls against the Impact a couple of weeks ago was less than ideal. This should be a fruitful mode of attack for the Black-and-Red, but it won't work if the balls into the area are too slow or not placed in good spots.
At the other end, the Red Bulls have gotten smaller without Jamison Olave, and without Henry standing over the ball their service is worse (though still good). The main threat may actually be on second balls, as Kljestan has a potent long-range shot. Felipe can also be dangerous in these moments, though he seems to prefer looking for a gap in the penalty area chaos to pass through.