The New York Red Bulls kicked off a three-match home stand with a 2-0 win over D.C. United last week. Making home games count is always important in MLS, but it was particularly important for RBNY after a four-game stretch that yielded just one point. The win over DC took the pressure off the team a little, but there remains the necessity to make the best of home advantage and the Red Bulls’ next opponent, Columbus Crew, presents its own challenge.
After a poor season in 2016, the Crew has roared into form in recent weeks, with four wins in its last five games. Currently at the top of the Eastern Conference, Columbus is about as hot a team as there is in MLS right now. And RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch respects the tactical acumen of the Crew’s head coach, Gregg Berhalter.
“I think given the nature of what these games have been like against Columbus, it’s another one that we know is really important,” Marsch told reporters after Red Bulls training on April 20.
“Columbus has had a good start to the year, they’ve altered a few things tactically. They’ve had some home games and they’ve done well in will those game and kept their leads. They look solid this year, so it will be a big challenge for us - and stylistically it will be a game that is in opposing styles in many way, so that always creates a good challenge for us.”
The Crew has long been built around a midfield core that includes two of the more effective players in MLS at their position. Federico Higuain can take control of a game with his play-making ability, and Wil Trapp is arguably one of the elite central midfielders in the league.
But the Red Bulls see Columbus as a well-drilled opponent with talent at every position:
“They are a very good team. What’s great about them: they have a philosophy, a way of playing. We’ve seen that in the last game, they kind of adapt their play - not playing as much from the back, but they still have a lot of technical quality in defense and in offense to be very dangerous,” said Aurelien Collin at the RBNY Training Facility.
“So we are going to have to be very good and very focused on the pressing; at the same time, knowing when to drop and when to press.”
So far Zack Steffen has been a solid replacement in goal for the departed Steve Clark. He has allowed only eight goals in seven starts, registering 21 saves along the way. Marsch is aware of Steffen’s ability, but also has spotted a difference between the Crew’s current ‘keeper and its last:
“The one quality that Clark had for the way they play is that he had the best feet coming out of the back, like he was the first attacker,” said Marsch. “Steffen has good feet, but not as good, so it puts more on their defensive three including Wil Trapp -when he drops with the center backs and is not able to spread the field as much. They will try to create overloads and match-ups and we will be there to try and stop it.”
Norwegian striker Ola Kamara has scored 20 goals in 32 appearances since joining the Crew. The Red Bulls are mindful of the scoring threat he represents, as well as the way in which he connects with Columbus’ wide men.
“When he has one opportunity, he can score - so we’re going to have to be very disciplined,” said Collin.
“He’s a scoring machine,” noted Felipe, who also made clear the team has not forgotten it was the Crew that bounced the Shield-winning Red Bulls out of the 2015 playoffs. “If they think that they are going to come in out house and try to make a party - it’s better to close that down.”
“Kamara since he’s been there, has always been a final play guy. He doesn’t concern himself too much with the run of play,” said Marsch.
“He just hangs out in an offside position often, and is always thinking about being available when the ball gets in wide positions. They have very good wingers and very good wide players - especially Afful from the right and as a right outside back. It means when they create overloads on the wings we have to do well defending the overloads and do well keeping track of Kamara in the box.”
The season has reached the point where teams have played enough games for their opponents to have a good idea of what to expect, in terms of form and preferred personnel. Columbus is good, the Red Bulls know it and they’re ready to test themselves against the best team in the East at the moment.
The game kicks off on Saturday, April 22, at 7:30 pm.