Coming off two high stakes rivalry matches against NYCFC and the New York Cosmos, New York Red Bulls fans may view Saturday night's game against Columbus Crew SC as an afterthought. Given the July 4th holiday, many supporters might even take the day off and spend time barbecuing and watching fireworks rather than tune in to MSG. However, while it may not carry the same weight of New York City dominance or bragging rights, Saturday night's game arguably has a greater bearing on the Red Bulls season than either of those against their crosstown rivals. The victor will hold down a spot in the standings ahead of the other, and gain a valuable three points against in intra-conference foe in the middle of the pack. And thus, the question of supreme importance: how can the Red Bulls beat the Columbus Crew?
About the Opponent
Red Bulls fans will fondly remember the first clash between the two this year, which brought the team their first, and, to date, only win outside New York (OR NEW JERSEY HAHAHA BECAUSE THEY PLAY IN HARRISON GET IT????) this season. In that game, both goals were generated off of turnovers in the attacking half. First Federico Higuain and later Michael Parkhurst were caught off guard by the team's high pressure, which allowed the team to quickly create goalscoring opportunities that they converted with aplomb.
This game promises to be a different affair altogether. Gregg Berhalter will surely have a much better idea of the Red Bulls' strategy after half a season instead of only having a couple glimpses of Jesse Marsch's system before their March encounter. Moreover, the team's ability to execute that style of play on Saturday is highly suspect, given the fatigue that will likely plague the team following such a congested schedule in recent weeks (more on that later).
The Crew will look to take advantage of their weary opponents by shuttling the ball out to the wings and pinging in crosses. So far this year, the Crew have led the league in crosses from open play, and it's not even close (the second best to their 370 crosses is the Galaxy's 302). With the aerial prowess of league leading goal scorer Kei Kamara lurking in and around goal, this danger is particularly acute.
Although, like the Red Bulls, Columbus play with a three-man midfield, they generate a majority of their attack from the wings. Pipa Higuain has been given the freedom -- freedom that has not necessarily made him a better player, as his play has dropped off somewhat this season -- this year to drift out wide. On either flank, Justin Meram and league assist leader Ethan Finlay will look to cut inside for looks at goal, while fullbacks Waylon Francis and Hector Jimenez overlap and push as high as any team's fullbacks in the league.
Perhaps the greatest difference between the Crew team that was so dominant at the end of last year, which included a thorough victory at Red Bull Arena, and the one that has sputtered as of late is the team's spine. While the drop in Higuain's production assuredly has a lot to do with the team's performance, Crew SC's anchors in the heart of defense and the back of midfield have not reached their 2014 heights. The defensive pairing of Michael Parkhurst and Emanuel Pogatetz have been mediocre-to-average this year, perhaps in part due to the fact that are both are on the wrong side of 30.
Meanwhile, in the center of midfield, former Red Bull Tony Tchani has not been able to replicate his heroics as a box-to-box midfielder this season, looking much more like the out-of-sorts player that cost the Crew dearly in the playoffs against New England last year rather than the one who drew calls for inclusion on the US national team. USMNT prospect Wil Trapp has suffered from nagging injuries throughout the year, but had an appearance as a substitute during the Open Cup on Wednesday. Trapp could make a triumphant return on Saturday, but is unlikely to be at his 100% best.
How to Beat
Saturday will mark the team's sixth game in 18 days, a stretch during which Mike Grella, Felipe, and Damien Perrinelle have featured in every game, while workhorse Dax McCarty has played every minute. Anatole Abang has logged almost 300 minutes over the past four games, a total that may wear on a player who the Red Bulls can ill afford to see fade down the stretch a la Chris Duvall last year.
Which brings us to injuries and absences. Chris Duvall is set to mostly likely miss the rest of the regular season after breaking his tibia. That leaves depth along the backline paper thin in the short term, as Ronald Zubar looks set for another spell on the sidelines, Roy Miller and Karl Ouimette are both away on international duty, and Andre Jean-Baptiste is no longer with the team (and his potential replacement, Will Packwood, is unlikely to sign). A back four of Kemar Lawrence, Perrinelle, Young Matt Miazga, and Connor Lade is still pretty strong -- in fact, that grouping started together in the win against Salt Lake -- but there are few reinforcements behind them, leaving fullbacks Anthony Wallace and Shawn McLaws, who has gotten some reps at centerback with NYRB II, as the only possible replacements.
Things look a bit more optimistic in the midfield, with one glaring exception. In his postgame remarks Wednesday night, Jesse Marsch hinted that, after playing in every minute of the Red Bulls five games over 15 days, Dax McCarty could be set a well earned rest. That leaves a gaping hole at the back of midfield, one likely to be filled by Sean Davis. Davis has drawn rave reviews so far from fans and the coaching staff alike, but has to play in a role that would require as much defensive responsibility as he will have to fulfill on Saturday, should he start in place of the captain.
Otherwise, look for a near first choice eleven elsewhere, including Bradley Wright-Phillips, who did not play against the Cosmos, and Lloyd Sam, who should be relatively fresh after a couple games out and only playing 65 minutes Wednesday night. Wright-Phillips and Sam, as they have been for so much of this season, are the key to the Red Bulls attack against the Crew. Assuming BWP once again takes up his spot on the left, these two will look to provide speed on the counter and a sort of defense-via-offense.
This latter point is particularly crucial for the team's game plan. Berhalter relies heavily on his fullbacks to get forward, both so that they can get crosses into the box but also so that his wingers have the leeway to navigate inside and combine with Higuain and Kamara. If Jimenez and Francis are able to get forward with regularity, the Red Bulls will have a great deal of trouble coping defensively, a task complicated further without Dax to put out fires everywhere on the pitch. Sam and Wright-Phillips will thus need to pin the Crew fullbacks back and force Columbus to think twice before throwing extra numbers forward into attack.
Otherwise, the team will have to be more selective when choosing when to press and when to drop deep, given the fatigue brought on by their recent busy stretch. Ball pressure is a great way to generate opportunities against a Crew team that wants to build out of the back, but often lacks the skill and wherewithal, especially without Trapp, to do so. The team's front four -- most likely Sam, BWP, Abang, and Sacha Kljestan -- can count on at least one or two turnovers leading to chances in the attacking half, but must be careful not to exhaust themselves too early in the match.