How to beat New York City FC is not a particularly novel question. Jesse Marsch and company have already posited two 90 minute-long answers that are pretty convincing. However, while the question is the same, its answer may be drastically different than it was on May 10th or June 28th. The lineup Jason Kreis trots out on Sunday will likely feature six or seven changes from the one last seen despondently trudging off the Yankee stadium pitch in June, challenging the Red Bulls to reinvent the wheel when they look to complete the season sweep of their crosstown rivals on Sunday evening.
About the Opponent
You know about their midfield maestro. The one with the flowing hair, the incomparable elegance, the legendary reputation that proceeds him. But I'm not going to talk about Tommy McNamara. Instead, the Red Bulls must focus on containing -- and exploiting -- Andrea Pirlo, who will sit at the heart of the Blue Team's midfield. In his brief time in the Bronx so far, Pirlo has proven central to everything his team do as the player with the highest usage rate in the league. Given Pirlo's defensive range, Andrew Jacobson will likely line up next to him to provide defensive cover.
Assuming David Villa continues to play as a lone striker, that leaves three attacking midfield spots available. Javier Calle is the only out-and-out winger that could see the field, although given his subpar performance against Montreal last Saturday, he will likely start on the bench. That leaves Frank Lampard, Tommy McNamara, Mix Diskerud, Ned Grabavoy, Kwadwo Poku, Sebastian Velasquez, and former Red Bull Medhi Ballouchy for Kreis to choose from.
McNamara is a safe bet to start on the left side, while Lampard should play in the hole from the start if fully fit. Mix came off the bench last weekend and raised the level of the team's play, and is a slight favorite to start on the right wing, a position where he has started to see time due to the glut of players on the roster competing for central midfield spots. Such a lineup would give NYCFC plenty of players who are strong in possession, but leave them short on defensive trackers and strip them of any pace to get in behind the Red Bulls defense.
In every home game in which they've kept all 11 players on the field, the Red Bulls have kept the majority -- usually over 60% -- of possession. While raw possession can be a noisy statistic, it reinforces the observation that the Red Bulls tend to control play at home. The team's two league home losses this year came against teams -- Philadelphia and Vancouver -- who sat deep and selectively countered, with the speed of CJ Sapong and Kekuta Manneh wreaking havoc on the team's defense on each occasion. NYCFC don't have attacking players with speed, and will struggle to create chances unless they can get the ball at the feet of Lampard, Diskerud, Pirlo, Villa, and others in attacking areas.
How to Beat
The Red Bulls have done very well against elite chance creators so far this season. Mauro Diaz, Federico Higuain, Kaka, and, as fans saw on Wednesday, Ignacio Patti struggled to make any imprint on the game when coming up against the team's high pressure. That success can largely be attributed to Dax McCarty, who has not given those number 10s any room in which to work.
NYCFC and Andrea Pirlo add a wrinkle to that narrative of success. Pirlo sits much deeper than any of the above players, meaning that the burden will fall upon Sacha Kljestan rather than Dax to close down space and prevent Pirlo from getting time on the ball. On the flip side, Kljestan should have plenty of room in which to operate thanks to Pirlo's defensive deficiencies. Sacha's best performance in a Red Bulls shirt came in the second half against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium, a feat he will look to build upon on Sunday. If he is able to turn in a top notch performance on both sides of the ball, the Red Bulls will be well on their way to victory.
Elsewhere on the field, the squad's depth at the wing positions puts them in a good position to exploit NYCFC's underwhelming fullbacks Angelino and Andoni Iraola. Lloyd Sam, Shaun Wright-Phillips, and Mike Grella all have the capability to win one-v-one battles to get in behind opposing defenses. However, SWP repeatedly failed in his attempts to best the Impact's defenders on Wednesday, and Lloyd Sam's early season mojo has begun to fade slightly. The team will be better suited to play through Kljestan or off of BWP, each of whom can play the team's wingers in behind City's disorganized, shambolic back four. New signing Gonzalo Veron will be available and could provide some spark off the bench should the team require a goal late on.
NYCFC have conceded 11 goals in their last four games, and are a good bet to give up multiple goals again on Sunday night. Looking at a midfield that struggles tracking back, Jesse Marsch may be tempted to start Sal Zizzo at right back in order to take full advantage of that vulnerability. Zizzo performed adequately but struggled at points in his 45 minutes in Montreal, and playing him against NYCFC seems like a risk not worth taking. While Connor Lade doesn't have the same attacking impact, his defensive work rate will be crucial in stopping a high powered NYCFC attack.
Finally, unexpected selection choices by Jason Kreis could force the Red Bulls to adapt their gameplan. In the event that Lampard does not start, the Ghanian Kwadwo Poku would likely feature in the hole behind David Villa. The physically imposing Poku would pose a challenge unlike any the comparatively diminutive Dax McCarty has faced this season, perhaps requiring Young Matt Miazga to step up into the midfield for aerial challenges off of long balls from Pirlo.