The New York Red Bulls remain one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, just as they have been for the past few seasons. 

This year, though, something is different. 

Call it the aura, or, as Alejandro Bedoya suggested this week, simply the absence of Tyler Adams, but the 2019 Red Bulls don’t instill the same fear in opponents as their predecessors. The suffocating compactness and exhausting-to-watch-it running haven’t been there this year, and the result has been 48 goals allowed through 31 games. That’s 15 more than Chris Armas’ side gave up all of last season. 

Is it Armas’ fault? Some of it, perhaps. The peak years under Jesse Marsch saw the acquisition of Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, and Felipe, then the injection of superstar midfielder Tyler Adams and the unlikely maintenance of Bradley Wright-Phillips goalscoring form long after he passed age 30. 

The academy has not gifted Armas any players of Adams’ overwhelming talent, and Kaku has seen an incredible dip in form following a standout 2018 and an offseason transfer saga. 

That’s a lot for a coach to handle, so any criticism of Armas should come with significant caveats. 

And, don’t forget, this is still a very good team. On any given day, Daniel Royer or Kaku can break a game open, and there are a lot of big bodies that can take over on set pieces. 

To succeed on the road, the Union need to focus on winning second balls and then playing into space to avoid Red Bulls flooding the zone near the ball. 

A huge question for Philly is whether they continue with the 4-2-3-1 or revert to a 4-4-2. The latter would allow for more pressure on the Red Bull center backs and bodies around the ball in the center, but the 4-2-3-1 can quickly stretch the field, and Jim Curtin may lean on that spacing to help his team navigate away from the opponents’ pressure. 

It’s important to remember that Curtin is one of the few managers in the league that has had success against peak Red Bulls. Even when the Union weren’t picking up three points, they created big opportunities on the road and at home last season. A missed penalty and a poor finish on a breakaway kept Philly from a win at Red Bull Arena last year, and an iffy penalty call provided the only light between the sides at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The Union and Red Bulls face off on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Red Bull Arena, and you can catch the action live on PHL17.