Let’s start with a crazy stat: Atlanta United and LAFC’s defenses currently have the best two goals against averages (GAA: 0.73 and 0.75 respectively) of the last three seasons in MLS. 2017 Sporting KC featured an eye-popping 0.79 GAA, but only one other team finished a season under 1.00 GAA.
That team was the 2018 New York Red Bulls. Jesse Marsch’s vicious, energetic side pushed forward relentlessly and, adhering to the Red Bull organizational credo, defended by attacking. When Chris Armas took over, he began dialing things back a notch. Success largely continued, though a limp playoff performance against Atlanta United hinted that Armas could go too far at times.
And through seven games of 2019, it looked like Armas really had gone too far, and lost track of the fundamentals in the process.
Last weekend’s performance against Real Salt Lake was New York’s best of the season, and a sign that they are may finally be stepping out of Bradley Wright-Phillips’ shadow offensively. Armas’ team now has a 1.00 GAA this season, nipping at the heels of the 2018 Red Bulls’ 0.94.
But here’s another crazy stat: According to American Soccer Analysis, both the 2018 and 2019 New York Red Bulls hold a 1.20 expected goals against average (xGA). Expected goals against per game is calculated by adding up the average value of all of a team’s shots in a game, factoring in things like shot angle, distance from goal, body part used, and other aspects of a shot that could make it more or less likely to go in.
Wait, that’s not the crazy stat — there is actually a third team since 2017 that has a 1.20 xGA. The 2019 Philadelphia Union are also tied for 12th place in xGA in the last three seasons.
The Union defense has been excellent this season, and until Minnesota caught them on the back end of three games in nine days Philly was suppressing shots on goal at an elite level.
Jim Curtin’s defense has been excellent at controlling games with their pressure, and the secret sauce has been spacing that allows the Union to control the size of the pitch for opponents. Against Seattle, Portland, and Colorado, Philly dominated the games but struggled to finish plays. With Haris Medunjanin, Jamiro Monteiro, and Ale Bedoya all willing and able to move the ball quickly in transition — both with passing and on the dribble — the Union have tended to be more effective when they face an opponent willing to come out and challenge them far from goal.
And beyond the similar defensive stats, this is what makes the 2019 matchup with the Red Bulls so intriguing: Over the past two seasons, Jim Curtin has been notably successful against his New York rival. Last year, the Union earned an early penalty and created numerous good chances against the eventual Supporters’ Shield winners on the road. They knocked off Jesse Marsch’s side in the Open Cup and outplayed Red Bulls at home, only losing on one of the stranger penalty calls of the season.
But Curtin’s success was out of a 4-2-3-1 that took advantage of the wide areas and now he often uses a narrow 4-4-2 diamond. So the big question for Saturday is: how will Curtin and his staff come out against the red hot Red Bulls?
The way to beat Armas’ side still looks to be the use of width, because as Sean Davis and Mark Rzatkowski have spent time together they’ve increasingly controlled the center of the pitch like the Davis-Tyler Adams duo of yore. However, there is every chance that Curtin goes toe-to-toe with Red Bulls and turns the match into a battle of transition play and leans on Jack Elliott and Haris Medunjanin to make the big passes through the lines.
The big questions for both the Union and Red Bulls are up front. Brian White has been the starter with Wright-Phillips out, but he only has one goal outside of garbage time with an opponent chasing the game. Is he the answer up top? Is Omir Fernandez?
Similarly, does Curtin stick with Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos even though Fafa Picault is back in the mix? Does he lean on Przybylko to fight in the air and go 4-2-3-1 to produce more natural width?
Find out how far ahead of the pack the Union will finish the first half of the 2019 season by checking out rivalry night against the Red Bulls on June 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET.