The Red Bulls' -- or, more accurately, the Metrostars' -- last (competitive) trip to Florida involved a great deal of drama. Octavio Zambrano's team conceded a first half goal to eventual MVP Alex Pineda Chacon, tied the game, and gave away another Chacon goal in the 79th minute. Peter Villegas came to the rescue with a tying goal in the 84th minute, while captain Daniel Hernandez stole three points at the death in stoppage time. 14 years later, Red Bulls fans will sacrifice that entertainment value for an assured three points, as the team looks to create distance between itself and middling sides like Orlando in the Eastern Conference standings.
About the Opponent
Orlando's season thus far has be divided into two halves. Over their first eight games, the team managed a paltry five goals. In their last thirteen, the Lions put the ball in the back of the net a whopping 23 times. This increase in production is attributable to any number of factors. Brek Shea moved up from left back, where he played well if conservatively, up to left wing, significantly increasing his role in the attack. Amobi Okugo has fallen out of the lineup in favor Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren, who have quietly formed a solid partnership at the back of midfield. Up top, manager Adrian Heath has ditched the perpetually offside Carlos Rivas, opting instead for Pedro Ribeiro or Superdraft #1 pick Cyle Larin.
Orlando cooled off in their last two matches -- a draw against a shorthanded RSL squad and a disappointing home loss to Dallas -- thanks to the mitigation of a number of those factors. Brek Shea missed both games due to an unknown injury, which has since been revealed to have required sports hernia surgery that will hold him out for months. Ceren and Larin, arguably Orlando's two best players aside from Kaka, were away at the Gold Cup with the Salvadoran and Canadian national teams respectively. Unfortunately for the Red Bulls, El Salvador and Canada's failure is Orlando's gain, with both players set to return to fold for Saturday night's affair.
Another change in Orlando's lineup that has flown under the radar has been the rise of the Seb Hines-Sean St. Ledger centerback pairing, leaving former All Star Aurelien Collin as the odd man out. While Hines and St. Ledger have done a fine job holding down the middle, the fullback position has been much more problematic. Portugal U-20 international Rafael Ramos has seen a number of ups and downs this year, and has occasionally shown a lack of discipline (positionally and otherwise) befitting his age. At left back, a rotating cast of candidates have attempted to lay claim to the spot, but to no avail.
Shea's move to left wing vacated the spot, opening up an opportunity for homegrown player Tyler Turner. That experiment came to an abrupt end when Turner got absolutely sonned by Chris Rolfe of DC United (to be fair to Turner, he beat me much worse when we faced off as U-14s). Luke Boden has filled in well for Orlando, but will miss out Saturday after picking up a red card against Dallas. Heath will have to either go back to Turner or select newly acquired Corey Ashe, who played precious few minutes over the past year for the Houston Dynamo after the signing of Damarcus Beasley.
How to Beat
The focal point of Saturday night's match will inevitably be in the center of midfield, with the Red Bulls trio of Dax McCarty, Felipe, and Sacha Kljestan looking to overcome Higuita, Ceren, and Kaka. Although each team deploys one attacking player ahead of a double pivot, the makeup and division of responsibilities of each trio is quite different. Higuita and Ceren do a fair amount of dirty work and rotate defensively in order to give the Ballon D'Or winner a free role as the orchestrator of Orlando's attack. On the other hand, Jesse Marsch's system requires all three of his center midfielders, albeit in different places on the field, to be proactive on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Even Dax, the most defensively-oriented of the three, shoulders a great degree of attacking responsibility.
The Instigators. MLS players by passes into the final third. Not surprised to see Federico on top. pic.twitter.com/LDuVefNqWn
— Alex Olshansky (@atosoccer) July 16, 2015
The balance, interconnectivity, and, dare I say, synergy of the Red Bulls midfield offers a distinct advantage over the limits of the well-defined roles given to Ceren, Higuita, and Kaka. While Kljestan has not been among the league's elite chance creators this year, he has remained connected to Dax and Felipe on a game-in, game-out basis, making it difficult for other teams to compete, much less dominate, in the center of the park. Kaka's free role, however, provides an opportunity for the Red Bulls to find space between the lines, isolating Orlando's attacking four from its back six, one of the most common pitfalls of the 4-2-3-1 formation.
The most famous example of a team putting this tactic to use was in Germany's 7-1 demolition of Brazil at last summer's World Cup. Not unlike Orlando, Brazil deployed two defensively-minded players, Fernandinho and Luis Gustavo, at the base of midfield, while Oscar was given the keys to the attack in the number ten role in Neymar's absence. Germany's balanced three man midfield of Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, and Bastian Schweinsteiger dominated the space between the lines, and the rest is history. If the Red Bulls are able to control that region of the field, they should find success playing off of Lloyd Sam cutting in from the right and Bradley Wright-Phillips or Anatole Abang holding up the ball up top.
Another key battle to look at will be between Sam and whomever Heath chooses to throw out at left back. The odds-on favorite Turner would provide a very favorable matchup for the Red Bulls winger, who has feasted throughout his career on subpar fullbacks around the league. Heath could alternatively select new signing Corey Ashe, who was traded to the team on Wednesday and barely has had time to learn his teammates' names, let alone the intricacies of Orlando's system and style of play. Even if Ashe, a better individual player than Turner at this point in his career, does get the start, the Red Bulls should look to exploit a player who has barely played in the past year and is unlikely to be on the same page as his teammates, an essential trait for a defender.
Plan A for the Red Bulls should be to control possession and own the center of the park, as sound a strategy for generating opportunities as it is for mitigating the threat of Orlando's offense and Kaka in particular. However, if Ceren and Higuita are able to break up play and disrupt the rhythm of the team's offense, having an All-Star caliber player like Lloyd Sam up against a weak spot in the opponent's lineup is a very strong Plan B.