After a wild Decision Day and a satisfying if nervy Shield-clinching win, Red Bulls fans have turned their attention toward the playoffs. For those of you who are new to this whole MLS thing, RBNY and playoff soccer go together like
Carlos Johnson and the Fair Play award Rafa Marquez and Cobi Jones. Don't let last year's triumph against The Scum fool you. This a cursed franchise destined for playoff doom.
And yet, there remains that stubborn glimmer of hope that pops up again each year. In a vain attempt to justify that hope with reason -- any actual application of reason would lead to the conclusion that, yes, the Red Bulls are getting knocked out first round on a last minute own goal -- we here at Once a Metro have put together a comprehensive preview of the Red Bulls' potential opponents, broken down the match ups, and outlined the path to victory that ends with MLS Cup.
Star attraction: Sebastian Giovinco
Weaknesses: Players not named Giovinco, Michael Bradley, or Jozy Altidore
Alright, is there any chance we win this or nah: The Red Bulls' most likely first-round opponents are perhaps the only franchise in the league with a worse playoff track record ... simply because they've never made it here before. While I may have been a tad harsh in the above weaknesses section -- Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado have lots of talent, Justin Morrow is one of the league's best fullbacks, and Herculez Gomez has a knack for scoring big goals in knockout competitions -- Toronto's defense hovers at just-barely-better-than-NYCFC levels of ineptitude.
Even though Il Generale Michael Bradley is a formidable presence, New York should comfortably win the central midfield battle. Toronto's 4-4-2 leaves them a man short against the indomitable Dax-Felipe-Sacha Kljestan trio. Moreover, Robbie Findley on the right offers little as an outlet in possession or as a defensive presence; Osorio is more likely to play narrow and provide support for the Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou in the middle, although in so doing he leaves Justin Morrow alone to handle the threat of Lloyd Sam and the overlapping right back.
The Red Bulls' defensive focus will obviously gravitate around Giovinco. The Italian international will play off the back shoulder of the defense to get in behind, drop into midfield to collect the ball, and drift into the left channel to create space. While Dax McCarty has had great success thus far this season containing many of the league's best number 10s, Giovinco's free role and varied movements will require a high degree of coordination between the captain, Damien Perrinelle and Young Matt Miazga in the center of defense, and whoever fills the right back spot. RBNY are by far the better team, but Giovinco could single-handedly drag Toronto into the next round if Jesse Marsch's men are unable to stifle him.
Star Attraction: Jermaine Jones, if he feels like showing up
Weaknesses: Jermaine Jones, if he doesn't feel like showing up
Alright, is there any chance we win this thing or nah: The 2015 Revolution are a slightly worse version of the team they were last October, when the Red Bulls were within a missed handball call of beating them. Since then, AJ Soares has departed, Jose Goncalves and Jermaine Jones have suffered from injuries and failed to play up to last year's highs, and Lee Nguyen's production has dropped off, although he remains a playmaking threat in the final third. On the other hand, Diego Fagundez and Red Bull Academy grad Juan Agudelo have added some dynamism to the New England attack.
In terms of how they will play, Jay Heaps' tactical approach does not fall neatly into either the "possession-oriented" or "bunker and counter" camp. New England don't build much if at all out of the back, preferring to skip the middle of the field, launching balls into targets Charlie Davies and Teal Bunbury and working combinations with Nguyen, Fagundez, or Kelyn Rowe in the final third. In last year's series, Bunbury physically dominated Ambroise Oyongo in those situations. This year, Kemar Lawrence should be up for the task, although if Bunbury moves to the left, then he presents an unfavorable matchup against undersized Connor Lade, not-a-defender Sal Zizzo, or not-fully-healthy Chris Duvall.
One thing to look out for is Heaps' underrated tactical acumen and flexibility. In last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Columbus Crew, Heaps keyed in on the Crew's propensity for building possession out of the back, even if their defenders were ill equipped to handle pressure. Even though the Revs rarely played a high press all year, Heaps sent his front four aggressively at the Crew's defense, generating possession and chances in the final third en route to a comprehensive 4-2 road win in the first leg. Don't be surprised if Heaps opts for the surprising -- starting Bunbury out left and the tricky and speedy Fagundez out right? -- to prey on the Red Bulls' weakness against speed on the counter.
I like the Red Bulls' chances here. If they are able to nip an away goal or two, the Revs will send their fullbacks Chris Tierney and London Woodberry forward often, which would open up tons of space and lead to a comprehensive New York victory in the series. If the Revs are able to keep RBNY off the scoreboard at Gillette though, they have the talent and the tactical flexibility to pose a dangerous threat.
Star Attraction: Angry Ben Olsen. Also Bill Hamid.
Weaknesses: A defense that let up five goals to a Kamara-and-Higuain-less Crew attack
Alright, is there any chance we win this thing or nah: Just like in 2014, we can hold them back.
Star Attraction: Laurent Ciman. No other stars come to mind. Nope, none at all.
Weaknesses: A little soft in the center of midfield
Alright, is there any chance we win this thing or nah: Hoo boy. RBNY aside, the Impact had the best record in the league over the last three months of the season, in large part thanks to this guy. Okay, this guy also played a part. Ciman, the front runner for MLS Defender of the Year, anchored a stingy defense that gave up only gave up one more goal than the Red Bulls' did all season. The Impact are particularly strong defensively when playing at home, an important characteristic given the away goals tiebreaker.
In the midfield, Montreal has enormous depth, although none of them are consistently spectacular. On his day, Ignacio Piatti is one of the top ten players in MLS, while he can otherwise be anonymous. Out wide, Dilly Duka, Dominic Oduro, Justin Mapp, Andres Romero, Johan Venegas, and Eric Alexander (miss you!) have all seen time this year and impressed at times. Romero is out for the season with an ACL tear, Mapp is still working his way back from an elbow fracture, and Alexander has struggled to get minutes of late, so expect to see Duka, Oduro, and the Costa Rica international Venegas split time on the field. At the back of midfield, interim manager Mauro Biello has slimmer pickings, and will probably opt for two scrappy destroyer-types in the mold of Nigel Reo-Coker, Patrice Bernier, or Marco Donadel.
The majority of attention, though, will be focused on the forward line. Much has been said about the importance of Didier Drogba: his veteran leadership, his hold up play, and, yes, his eleven goals in eleven games. Beyond those, Drogba's role within the team can change over the course of a single game. In the first half against Toronto on Sunday, Drogba dropped deep in the midfield to find the ball, condensing space and attempting to build possession with the midfield. In the second half, Drogba pushed up higher as an outlet, creating more space for the midfield and acting as a target for crosses in the box. His positioning can change the shape of the game, and the defensive triangle of Dax, Miazga, and Perrinelle will have to work cohesively to contain his enormous threat.
Montreal presents the greatest obstacle on the Red Bulls path to MLS Cup. Not only are they hitting their stride at the right time with the hottest player in the league, but their speed on the counter should scare any fan who saw the Red Bulls undone at the hands of Vancouver or Philadelphia at home. That being said, Young Matt rose to the occasion not once, not twice, but three times this year to absolutely shut down David Villa, a feat he will look to match if/when he faces up against the Ivorian international. Kljestan, Dax, and Felipe should comfortably control the center of the park in both legs against the Impact, which should be enough to win the series so long as the team is smart about not committing too many men forward in order to hedge against the counter.
Crew Cat RIP Kei Kamara
Weaknesses: Central Defense
Alright, is there any chance we win this thing or nah: I was there in 2008 when Guillermo Barros Schelotto and his colleagues in yellow ran a ragtag Red Bulls team off the Home Depot Center pitch. In any of the past few years, I would have feared that his compatriot Federico Higuain could be capable of a similar performance, but this year he has struggled to maintain his elite level of performance. Nevertheless, Ethan Finlay has shouldered much of the chance creating burden from the right wing by pitching in 13 assists, fullbacks Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis have pushed high and lumped in an unconscionable amount of crosses, and Kei Kamara has bagged 22 goals, 23 of which have been scored with his head.
This Crew team forces overloads on the wings -- with the fullback, the winger, and the roaming enganche Higuain creating 3-v-2's -- and then works combinations into the box or, more often, hits in crosses to Kamara or the opposite winger at the far post. Miazga and Perrinelle are more than happy to face crosses into the box all day long, although Kamara's movement and aerial prowess will pose an acute danger in the box. Furthermore, the Red Bull fullbacks will provide much greater resistance than the comparatively feeble defenders that the Crew abused time and again on Sunday night.
Offensively, RBNY should look to seize the space left behind the overlapping fullbacks Afful and Francis. Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro, the Crew's centerbacks, are not among the most mobile in the league, although they are both savvy defenders who position themselves well to prevent imbalances for opposing offenses to exploit. Pulling them out wide to handle Lloyd Sam, Mike Grella, or Gonzalo Veron one-on-one is the best way to create space for Bradley Wright-Phillips or a trailing Kljestan to get on the end of crosses and through balls.
Columbus' double pivot wil do their best to disrupt the Red Bulls' midfield rhythm, while the Dax-Felipe-Kljestan trio will press and look to isolate the Crew's back six from their front four. I like New York's chances of winning that battle, and Columbus' young core hasn't shown that they have what it takes to put together a solid performance over 180 minutes. Then again, in order to face the Red Bulls, they will have to do just that, so -- as with any game or series in MLS -- all bets are off.