Match Preview

Cann's Corner: How the Union can win against the Red Bulls in Open Cup | Tactical Preview

Union vs. RBNY Tactical Preview UPDATED

On Wednesday night, New York Red Bulls defeated Seattle Sounders 2-1 at Red Bull Arena. While the result could be expected given the form of the two sides, what was notable from the match was Red Bulls' lineup, which featured something very close to their best eleven. That does not mean that Philadelphia Union are unlikely to see players like Bradley Wright-Phillips, Daniel Royer, and Tyler Adams on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium when they meet New York for the fourth straight season in the US Open Cup. Jesse Marsch pulled Adams and Wright-Phillips before the 80th minute, and with players looking at three days off following Saturday's match, Red Bulls will likely be at close to full strength. 

And full strength for New York includes Kaku, the creative dynamo who missed Wednesday's match while traveling with the Paraguay national team to face Japan (where he lost 4-2). The small but dangerous attacker nearly opened the scoring against the Union when these teams met in May, and he will be at the center of anything dangerous Red Bulls creates this weekend.

Since we only recently ran through Red Bulls' tactical approach in detail, let's go through a quick summary of how they like to play and what to look for on the pitch this weekend.

But wait! Before moving forward, there is a big issue to address: There is a chance this could be Jesse Marsch’s last match in charge of New York Red Bulls, with rumors continuing to swirl that he will leave to take up the reins of Red Bull Leipzig, the newest power players in the German top division. After Wednesday’s win, New York’s Head Coach said he would absolutely be in the same position this weekend. It would be a huge leap for Marsch, who has done great work in New Jersey since 2015. But one big question remains: Will Marsch take the balls with him when he goes?

Previous USOC match: New York derby

Red Bulls absolutely pummeled NYCFC in their last US Open Cup match, and not for the first time this season. The win highlights a huge key to New York's success: Getting an early goal. When they score quickly, New York can prey on teams as they push players forward. Since they prefer to play a field position game and hoover up second balls after playing long, Red Bulls become extremely dangerous when they catch teams without enough bodies in back. Following a turnover, New York looks to play vertical balls either behind the defense or into the feet of an attacker, who then seeks to lay the ball off to a second runner while a third man punctures the defensive line with an angled run.

New York's breakthrough against NYC came when they overloaded the near side of Patrick Viera's (now departed (don't worry - just for France)) defense and easily walked in to score. This should be less of an issue for the Union since they do not tend to get expansive as quickly as NYC when building play from the back.

New York will attack the Union's back line
What makes the Red Bulls a Big Scary Pressing Monster is their ability to target and disrupt play deep in the opponent's half. This means putting the Union's defense under pressure whenever they make an error as small as:

  • A poor first touch
  • Keeping the body closed (turned the direction the ball came from) when receiving the ball)
  • Indicating where the next pass will go by looking that way as the ball arrives or shaping the body to pass

These are not all errors against typical opponents, but New York plays soccer as if they have 10 strong safeties on the field. Once they read the flow of play, they press the ball, the last passer, and, often, the pass up the flank. This forces play into the center where Red Bulls have redonkulous athlete Tyler Adams and positionally sound Sean Davis.

A perhaps-underrated aspect of forcing teams into the center is that New York now has consistent front-foot defenders at center back, and both Tim Parker and Aaron Long have no qualms about charging into midfield to disrupt play.

All of this begins with effective responding to pressing triggers during build-up play. Whether they meet you 30 yards from your goal (if they think you're jumpy) or closer to the center circle (when they are more worried about your midfield's ball-playing ability), Red Bulls believe they can more safely defend their own net by keeping you far away from it.

Let's play rugby

Some rugby teams play a field possession game in which they try to keep play near the opponent's end of the pitch. Instead of holding the ball, they drop kick it forward and race after it, accepting that they may lose possession of the ball but that they can more easily capitalize on mistakes by the opponent. Red Bulls will do the same on the soccer field. 

It works because New York has elite athletes who can gallop through midfield to circle wagons around any second balls that fall loose. Then, they look for Kaku, who opens up by getting square to the ball carrier or slipping out from under the covering shadow -- basically, he moves so he's no longer behind a defender that is moving forward to press the ball -- and the Paraguay international looks to play behind the defense. 

It's not pretty, but if you have salacious dreams about efficiency and can't pull a Pep Guardiola and assemble a team of technical wizards, the Red Bull model is for you. 

Of course, it helps to have Bradley Wright-Phillips and his Nic Cage-esque ability to see three seconds into the future leading your line when everything you do depends upon an immediate transition from defense to attack. 

Check out Part 2 of the tactical analysis for a look at how the Union can deal with New York’s pressing.

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