Saturday night brings a matchup of two teams not dissimilar to each other in composition and circumstance. Both teams are helmed by young, promising managers, employ 4-2-3-1 formations (although these systems manifest themselves differently), and had fast starts to the season and have since cooled off somewhat.
The Whitecaps followed up a disappointing loss to the Montreal Impact with a surprise upset of the Galaxy at the Stub Hub Center, while the Red Bulls returned to winning ways in the Open Cup Tuesday night, albeit against a poor Atlanta Silverbacks side. Without further ado, let's take a look at how the New York Red Bulls can continue to build momentum and beat the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Usually in these pieces, there are sections on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. However, the Whitecaps are well-rounded enough that they cannot be divided into these simple categories. In goal, the Dane David Ousted has greatly stepped up his game over the past 18 months and is a reliable shot-stopper. Kendall Waston has proven a reliable presence in the back -- prompting our friends over at Eighty Six Forever to wonder whether Waston is the best centerback in the league -- while former all-star and World Cup veteran Steven Beitashour stands out as one of the top right backs in the league.
Two out of Gershon Koffie, Russell Teibert, and Matias Laba will anchor the back of midfield with Chilean DP Pedro Morales playing ahead of them in the number 10 role (although Morales plays in a deeper position than many other number 10s around the league). Kekuta Manneh brings terrorizing speed and counterattacking ability on the left flank, without the total inability to pass or shoot that plagues a certain speedster on the Red Bulls roster. New signing Octavio Rivero won March Player of the Month and filled the void left by the departure of Camillo following the 2013 season, notching six goals thus far.
The only chink in Vancouver's armor comes at the left side of defense. Former Portland Timber Pa Modou Kah has earned a reputation for making rash tackles and dumb decisions in the defensive third, shown poor judgment in one-v-one situations, and an inability to track runners in the run of play. Starting left back Sam Adekugbe will miss out due to injury, leaving six-year MLS vet Jordan Harvey to deputize. Harvey is not a bad option, but nevertheless lost his spot to Adekugbe earlier in the year and, along with the vulnerable Kah, could prove to be a weak spot for the Red Bulls to attack.
Also, where the hell is Kah going? He turned into Otto Porter for a second there. #VANvTOR— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) March 8, 2015
How to Beat
According to Jesse Marsch on this week's Seeing Red, the Red Bulls will play a full strength eleven in spite of the upcoming schedule congestion. The only potential change to the normal lineup would involve Chris Duvall, and Lloyd Sam, who went off injured in Tuesday night's victory. Duvall missed out Tuesday night due to suspension, which paved the way for deputy Connor Lade to put in an impressive shift at right back.
Duvall has struggled in one-on-one situations on multiple occasions so far this year, and Manneh's pace and trickery on Vancouver's left put up a challenge greater perhaps than any he has face so far this year. It's unlikely that Duvall will start all of the five games over the next two weeks, and it is possible Marsch chooses to deploy Lade in his place in order to cope with the threat of Manneh.
Lloyd Sam's replacement, assuming he can't go, for tomorrow night's game is anyone's guess. Given Sam's importance to the Red Bulls' offense, Marsch's choice for his replacement will have far reaching consequences for how the Red Bulls will play, and how they will attempt to beat the Whitecaps. The odds-on favorite is Dane Richards, who has been Marsch's first choice off the bench in several games this season, including Tuesday night as Sam's replacement. Sal Zizzo is nearing his return, but it's hard to believe that he will be fit enough to start. The only other like-for-like option off the bench is Marius Obekop, who had to return to Cameroon this week to handle visa issues, making his inclusion less than likely.
The best bet is on Richards, but in his last two games, against Houston and Atlanta, the Jamaican international has failed to produce, evoking many of Red Bulls' fans negative memories from his first stint with the team without showing the flashes of brilliance displayed in the team's 2008 MLS Cup run, to name perhaps the foremost occasion. Richards operates best on the counter, and the team's center midfield trio will look to spring him early and often with balls in behind. It is worth noting that in the second half against Atlanta, Richards and Grella switched wings, with Richards attacking down the left and Grella down the right, an alignment Marsch could once again use against Vancouver.
Another option that will surely excite fans would be Sean Davis, who could fill the number 10 role, pushing Sacha Kljestan out left, or play in an inverted winger role himself. Davis impressed in his 45-minute Open Cup cameo, capping off a superb buildup with a well-taken goal, the first of his young professional career. Davis' inclusion would give the Red Bulls an extra man to drift inside, and a player much more comfortable in possession than the comparably poor Richards. Davis gives the team the best chance to boss possession against the Whitecaps' three man midfield.
A final consideration would be a change of system in which Anatole Abang, a potential starter according to Marsch, would fill in for Sam. With Abang up top and Wright-Phillips presumably next to or marginally behind him, Kljestan would presumably slide out to the left side of midfield in a 4-4-2. Marsch has yet to throw out two strikers so far this year, but tonight's match may be the best time yet to do it, given the need to attack Vancouver's unbalanced centerback pairing, in particular Kah. BWP has past success going up against Kah when he has another striker alongside him, and could be better positioned to be a goalscorer rather than a facilitator. However, this move does come at the cost of a third man in the midfield, leaving the Red Bulls outmanned in the center of the park.
Regardless of Sam's replacement, the Red Bulls will need to breakdown a team that will likely sit back and look to counter. In each of their past four road games, Vancouver has held less than 50% of possession, ceding 65% to Galaxy in their last outing. Laba and Koffie are experts at disrupting opposing teams' midfield chemistry, and the rest of the team's defensive unit will prove difficult to breakdown. On the flip side, Morales is the best in the league at pinging long passes on a dime, while Manneh's torrid pace has caught out some of the league's best defenses during his short tenure in MLS.
During its current rough patch of form, Marsch's men have struggled mightily to break down compact defenses, relying on individual brilliance from Sam and Grella to beat defenders and generate chances. When the team hasn't created high quality opportunities, they have grown increasingly desperate and thrown more men forward, leaving them vulnerable to the counter. The Red Bulls will have to find a way to create chances and shake things up -- including a possible change in formation -- without leaving too much space for Vancouver, like Philadelphia and Houston before them, to exploit.