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Previewing the New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC with Waking the Red

Coming off their best performance of the year, a 4-1 thrashing of the New England Revolution, the New York Red Bulls look to win consecutive games for the first time in 2013 away against Toronto FC this Saturday at 2 pm EST. We exchanged a few questions with Duncan Fletcher of Waking the Red to get a little more insight into our Eastern Conference foe currently doing their best Red Bulls under Hans Backe impression having tied their last four games.

Mike Stobe

Once a Metro: How will a midweek Canadian Championship game against Montreal affect Toronto FC (the four-time defending Canadian champions might I add!) and the approach to Saturday against the New York Red Bulls? Do you expect to see the same lineup used for both matches?

Waking the Red: There was a big debate before the game as to just how seriously TFC should take the Canadian Championship game. In the end there were 9 changes to the starting lineup, priority given to resting some key players for the sake of the league. Montreal did the same, and TFC came away with a slightly surprising 2-0 win. Despite that and the real possibility of getting to the final, I'd expect the same approach for the return leg, meaning there won't be anyone being rested on Saturday. It'll be what passes for a first team around these parts, with a few of them - notably the best two players so far this season - Joe Bendik and Robert Earnshaw, fully rested and ready to go.

Once a Metro: Seven points from seven games can't be too exciting of a start to 2013. What's got you worried and what are you feeling good about so far?

Waking the Red: Were you not paying attention to last season? 7 points in 7 games, while not necessarily exciting, is a respectable start to the season that's been welcomed as lowered expectation defying progress. If it wasn't for giving away 3 injury time equalizers, things would be going very well indeed (Goonies never die? Redshirts always die.)

Ryan Nelsen is focusing very much on defense first, he repeatedly talks about building a foundation, and that's going fairly well, the team is pressing well, high up the pitch and they play a fairly simple defensive game, keep it tight in the middle, try and force the opposition out wide, nothing fancy, but very necessary given the very fragilely rebuilt squad so far. That type of defensive game requires attacking players who can make things happen without to much support, and Robert Earnshaw has shown he's more than good enough to do that.

What worries me is the lack of support for Earnshaw. Justin Braun is, well he's Justin Braun. Any team that's relying on him to start probably isn't that good a team. Most of the attacking midfielders aren't really lighting things up, Englishmen John Bostock and Hogan Ephraim have both been disappointing, though Luis Silva has looked good since returning from injury. If the squad isn't improved, I can definitely see the goals drying up as teams figure out how to shut Earnshaw down and TFC stops getting breaks, out of 9 league goals, 3 have come from defensive giveaways, 2 from penalties and 2 from very low percentage shots from defensive players outside the box, that sort of thing surely can't continue.

Once a Metro: While Robert Earnshaw has already racked up 22 shots, no other Toronto player has more than five. That said, besides Earnshaw who else do you think the Red Bulls defense will need to keep an eye on?

Waking the Red: Defenders really do have to keep their eye on Earnshaw. He's very opportunistic, always ready to pounce on a bad back pass or a poorly organized offside trap, and when he gets a chance, he's been downright lethal so far. Aside from Earnshaw, it's difficult to say. Braun does a basic job well, but isn't really that much of a threat. Luis Silva in attacking midfield is definitely worth watching, he can thread a very nice pass through a defense if given the chance. Aside from him it's a crap shoot really, there's Reggie Lambe, who's exciting when he's on his game, but very rarely is, and who knows, this might be the game that John Bostock finally breaks out.

Once a Metro: Projected starting lineup and score for Saturday?

Waking the Red: Joe Bendik; Ryan Richter, Gale Agbossoumonde, Darren O'Dea, Ashtone Morgan; Jeremy Hall, Luis Silva, Hogan Ephraim, Reggie Lambe; Justin Braun, Robert Earnshaw. This may be the game that TFC's luck runs out, I'll go with a 2-0 Red Bulls win.

Once a Metro: Toronto will play Montreal FIVE times between league games and the Canadian Championship in 2013. Do you expect to be sick of watching the Reds take on the Impact by the time October rolls around?

Waking the Red: Nah, we played them 5 times last year as well, it doesn't get old. Basically though it will come down to the results, 5 defeats would certainly get old. I definitely enjoyed this week's game, I know that much.

Thanks again to Duncan Fletcher over at Waking the Red - onto a preview of the Red Bulls side of things.

Waking the Red: We know he was evil and mean to Jimmy Nielsen and thus won't be playing in this game, but how's Juninho doing so far this season? An improvement on Rafa Marquez?

Once a Metro: Absolutely, but to be fair an empty roster spot would have been an improvement over Rafa Marquez. Juninho has been fine so far, a little disappointing considering his elite reputation at taking set pieces but his vision in the midfield has been apparent and he has been particularly adept at finding Henry and Espindola with terrific through passes. He plays aggressively and seems to be adapting the physical style of MLS quickly. Besides a minor injury that kept him out for a week, the only big letdown was his terrible decision to kick a dead ball at Jimmy Nielsen. Channeling his inner-Rafa Marquez, Juninho overreacted to time wasting by the Kansas City goalkeeper in stoppage time of an eventual 1-0 defeat for New York. I don't expect Juninho at 38-years-old to play every minute of every game, but I do expect him to be able to keep his composure as an experienced veteran and not earn unnecessary suspensions that may hurt the team.

Waking the Red: Getting away from the Fancy Dan's, let's talk about a couple of the unheralded Red Bulls. Jonny Steele, fantastic name, the kind of player I like and going through a tough time right now, how big of a role will he play with the Red Bulls this year. Roy Miller, has he redeemed himself yet from his comical early season exploits?

Once a Metro: Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander - a great example of one team's "trash" being another team's treasure. The Red Bulls picked up both of these players on the cheap during the off-season along with Kosuke Kimura. Steele and Alexander have had mixed performances so far but will both be critical pieces to New York's success, at least until the summer when one or both may be bumped for new players arriving. Steele in particular seems to have a particularly solid work rate, and since so much of the attack moving forward does come up the left side where he's been stationed, he'll constantly be engaged with the run-of-play. Conversely, opponents tend to try and exploit Roy Miller's defensive lapses so Steele's ability to provide defensive cover on the left will be just as crucial.

It feels almost surreal to be writing about Roy Miller as a member of the New York Red Bulls. He has been with the club longer than any other player currently on the roster and will likely go down as one of the most polarizing players in team history. A couple of enormous mental lapses early in the season definitely cost the Red Bulls critical points away from home, but after a brief international hiatus he seems to have gotten his head straight and worked his way back into the starting lineup. It probably helped that the play of Heath Pearce and Markus Holgersson hasn't been particularly stunning either. It would be hard to argue that Miller isn't working hard and contributing to the team, but he's still a long ways from redemption in the minds of many Red Bulls fans.

Waking the Red: After a stuttering start to the season, New York seems to be getting it together. Is that due to getting used to a new coach? Also, is Mike Petke the man to finally get New York to do some damage in the playoffs?

Once a Metro: Forgive my rose tinted glasses, particularly coming off a 4-1 thrashing of New England at home last weekend. But considering a brand new rookie coach and a largely overhauled roster, the only truly disappointing result so far was a 3-1 loss away against the Chicago Fire. The Red Bulls are not an elite MLS team, and shouldn't be expected to play like one. I think what you've seen is a change in approach, particularly in the attack, as Petke has essentially abandoned an ambitious 4-3-3 formation for a more efficient 4-4-2. Speaking of Petke, it's too early to tell if he's the guy who will lead New York to MLS Cup. A lot depends on the team staying relatively injury free and what changes they make during the summer transfer window. As thing stand now, granted it's quite early in the season, I see New York as the fourth best team in the Eastern Conference behind Sporting Kansas City, the Houston Dynamo, and the Montreal Impact. If Petke and assistant coach Robin Fraser can draw from their defensive prowess and work to tighten up the back line, the goals will come and New York shouldn't have a problem competing for their first playoff series victory since 2008.

Waking the Red: Lineup and score prediction?

Once a Metro: Even though Toronto has tied their last four league games and has played well at home so far in 2013, I think that the Red Bulls will be able to take three points from a 2-1 win. The starting lineup will be, um, interesting with Dax McCarty and Juninho both missing from the midfield, one due to injury and the other because of a Jimmy Nielsen's fish-out-of-water performance. The Red Bulls defensive third will most likely be Roy Miller, Heath Pearce, Jamison Olave, and Brandon Barklage across the backline with Luis Robles in goal. Thierry Henry and Fabian Espindola will feature up top. Who joins Tim Cahill, Johnny Steele, and Eric Alexander in the midfield is up in the air. Depending on whether Petke moves Steele or Alexander into a more central role, you'll likely see the young Spanish winger Ruben Bover or English veteran Lloyd Sam step in. It's also possible that the young Cameroonian Marius Obekop could see an expanded role after he recently made his MLS debut off the bench and showed well in his brief appearance.