It looked a lot like last year.
After overwhelming MLS en route to the 2015 Supporters’ Shield, the New York Red Bulls faced a new challenge during the MLS Cup Playoffs: the bunker.
Beginning with D.C. United in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and culminating in a postseason exit at the hands of Columbus Crews SC in the Eastern Finals, RBNY were forced to deal with opponents who ceded possession to New York, clogged the midfield, absorbed pressure and looked to strike on quick counter-attacking movements.
In Leg 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Montreal Impact looked to use the same strategy that New York’s playoff opponents used in 2015 and they used to great success in their defeat of D.C. in this year’s knockout round.
The strategy worked. Again.
In Montreal’s 1-0 win last Sunday at Stade Saputo, L’ Impact sat back defensively, ceded possession to RBNY, clogged the midfield, got their goal via an impressive strike from Matteo Mancosu and head to Sunday’s return leg at Red Bull Arena with the slight advantage.
L’ Impact Central Defense Was Immense
Montreal's center back pairing of Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera were absolute monsters in Leg 1.
During the broadcast Ciman was receiving the majority of the praise and rightly so, but Cabrera was just as instrumental in Montreal’s shutout.
In 90 minutes together, the Belgian Ciman had 13 clearances, six recoveries, four interceptions and three tackles. His partner, the Argentine Cabrera, had nine clearances, seven recoveries, nine interceptions and four tackles for himself.
To put those numbers into some perspective, RBNY had 12 clearances total as a team. The Red Bulls did have a significant number of more interceptions and recoveries, but that was due to NY’s pressure in midfield and in Montreal’s defensive end.
Biello’s Decision: Drogba or Mancosu, Never Both
When L’Impact visited Red Bull Arena on a sweltering night back in August, head coach Mauro Biello set his team up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation with Didier Drogba and Matteo Mancosu as the strikers.
With two forwards deployed, and Drogba’s tendency to float wherever he feels, he and Mancosu occupied much the same positions on the field, leaving space open behind them right in the middle of the field. As a result, New York were able to attack right down the center to the tune of three goals in a 3-1 win.
L’Impact returned to New Jersey in late-September and, in this matchup, Biello put his team out in a 4-3-3 that effectively operated as a 4-2-3-1 with Drogba as the lone forward. That night, Montreal kept a much better shape and kept the midfield closed and forced New York out to the wings. Despite losing, the strategy worked well for Montreal as they held New York to a single goal from Daniel Royer.
In Leg 1, L’Impact trotted out Mancosu as the lone striker and maintained a disciplined shape.
Following Drogba’s mini-crisis to close out the regular season, the Ivorian legend is back practicing with his teammates and looks to be available to play on Sunday.
Montreal were given a slight scare earlier this week as Mancosu missed practice on Wednesday. However, the Italian returned to the field on Thursday and appears ready to go this weekend.
With both Mancosu and Drogba potentially available for selection this Sunday, who will Biello turn to? Odds are he’ll start Mancosu with Drogba on the bench.
Red Bulls Had No Wings and That’ll Need to Change
Montreal’s defensive game plan had two main objectives; surround and bottle up Red Bulls playmaker Sacha Kljestan and force New York to attack down the flanks.
By succeeding in putting nine men behind the ball and clogging the midfield, L’Impact completely neutralized Kljestan. The MLS assist leader in 2016, with 20, didn't create a single chance for RBNY in Leg 1.
As Kljestan was mostly silent during the afternoon, the Red Bulls needed to get an offense spark from wingers Mike Grella and Alex Muyl.
They got nothing.
Neither were up to the task as they combined for zero shots and were credited with completing all of two passes inside the penalty area; Grella’s square ball to Kljestan in the 67th minute that Evan Bush took off the Red Bull playmaker’s foot and a 11th-minute flicked header to Bradley Wright-Phillips that was generously counted as a completed by Opta.
Muyl isn't in the the starting XI for his attacking fervor, rather his pressing ability and defensive tenacity, the same can't be said for Grella. Grelladihno has been a game-in and game-out starter for ability to take players on and score goals. Despite a goal in New York’s final home game of the regular season against Columbus, the Glen Cove, LI native was silent once again in Quebec.
Unable to register a shot of any kind, Grella also struggled passing the ball; completing 22 of 39 passes (56.4%) with a single key pass leading to that Kljestan 67th-minute shot that Evan Bush saved.
New York must get better play out of it’s wide players.
As Montreal focused all of their energy on clogging the midfield and surrounding Kljestan at all times, it will fall on RBNY’s wide players; whether it’s Grella, Muyl, Daniel Royer or Gonzalo Veron to exploit the space given to them.
Veron, particularly, could have a starring role in Sunday’s game at Red Bull Arena.
As the Red Bulls chase the game in Leg 2, head coach Jesse Marsch could look to different options in order to force the action early in the game. Those who have long-clamored for the Argentine Designated Player to have a starting role may get their wish.
After being introduced into Leg 1 in the 73rd minute, Veron was one of RBNY’s most dangerous attacking players. Constantly finding open space where Grella struggled, Veron connected on three passes inside the penalty area, including a pass that should have resulted in New York tying the game and grabbing a vital away goal.
Breaking free from L’Impact right back Hassoun Camara, Veron’s cut-back was one-timed by Omer Damari. Evan Bush parried the shot right into the path of Wright-Phillips who shanked his rebound shot wide of the net.
Another attacking option that Marsch may look to utilize is Daniel Royer.
Making his first MLS start in that late-September encounter, Royer was New York’s most dangerous players with two shots on goal, including the game winner in the 60th minute.
However, Royer having been out of commission since that game with a hamstring injury, just made his return to practice last week prior to Leg 1 and seems to be on track to be available in Leg 2.
How Will the New York React to Montreal’s Slight Lead?
L’Impact will do what we all know they will do. They're going to, once again, play compact and defensively and hope to hit New York on the counter. The Red Bulls will need to find a way to break Montreal’s defense and forced them to come out of their shell and play. If RBNY are able to do so, especially early in the game, they’ll take control of the series and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. If they are not, and Montreal have another performance like last week, the Red Bulls will see their season end much in the same way it did last year.
Last season, Marsch and the Red Bulls couldn't adjust. They kept banging their heads against the same wall and were unable to knock it down. Will they do the same or will we see something different?