It feels like the inaugural MLS is Back Tournament started only yesterday. Time flies when you’re having fun watching soccer matches on a computer screen. In the final Group E match, the New York Red Bulls take on FC Cincinnati. There are spots in the knockout rounds at stake, with both teams on three points and in a position to advance. The two sides faced off on Opening Day in March, with the Red Bulls pulling off a 3-2 victory.
FC Cincinnati lodged an impressive 1-0 win over a group of players seemingly wearing Atlanta United jerseys. The Red Bulls are coming off a disappointing 2-0 loss to the Columbus Crew, but can advance with a win or a draw due to goal differential. While some may overlook the match, prematurely labelling it an exhibition of ugly soccer, the contrasting tactical styles and storylines should engage the minds of both fans and neutrals.
Here’s what to watch as the Red Bulls take on the Orange and Blue from The Queen City.
Red Bulls manager Chris Armas made the decision to not rotate his squad against Columbus, sending out the same starting lineup. “I think the guys were recovered,” he said after the match. “Five days for the pro players that we have, the fitness levels that we have, that certainly in my opinion — that was not the difference tonight.”
He appeared to recognize the noticeable fatigue, making two substitutions at halftime. With qualification for the knockout rounds looking increasingly likely, expect changes for the third match. Perhaps there will be a shift at center back, with Tim Parker rotating back into the starting lineup. The 27-year-old was considered a lock, but has been on a gradual decline since signing a contract extension prior to the 2019 season. He had a dismal cameo appearance in the opening match against Atlanta, misplaying a ball that almost led to a goal and committing a rash foul in a dangerous area.
The fullback positions aren’t teeming with depth, but it might be time for Mandela Egbo to make an appearance at right back and give Kyle Duncan a break. While Jason Pendant has been adequate on the defensive side of the ball and neutral in the final third, his replacement options are an unseasoned Patrick Seagrist or an out-of-position Amro Tarek or Alex Muyl. None are ideal replacements, but starting the match with a fatigued left back – arguably the most essential position in the high press – doesn’t put the best foot forward.
HIGH PRESS VERSUS BUNKER-AND-COUNTER
It’s difficult to find two MLS teams that eschew possession more than the Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati, albeit for different reasons. The former ideally relies on generating quick-strike opportunities through immediate, focused swarming of passing lanes after losing possession and the gradual suffocation of the opponent’s options as the formation collapses to shrink the field; the largely outmatched latter team strives to keep a compact defense, holding down the fort and making occasional outmanned forays into the opposition’s side of the field. Neither tactic wins hearts and souls raised on the possession-focused tactics of Arsenal and Barcelona, but they’re both intelligent and useful in their own way.
The Red Bulls’ system punishes teams attempting to play the ball out of the back, taking advantage of misplayed passes, lazy clearances, and reactions that are a step too slow. What happens when a team like Cincinnati ignores the battle, keeps to its familiar territory, and ventures out at random, devastating intervals? Ceding possession and counter-attacking is not one of the strongest and most effective strategies to combat the high press. It is the strongest and most effective strategy to combat the high press.
How can you run an effective press when there’s nothing to press? The Red Bulls eternally struggle to deal with teams putting eight players around the box, unable to slalom past defenders or play the crucial, space-creating diagonal pass. There have been many matches filled with aimless crosses and useless possession, leading to defeat at the hands of a few patient breakouts that cut through or outright surpass the midfield with long balls and field switches. Armas pushed for an alternate team strategy, and this match is the perfect for its deployment.
Cincinnati verbally committed to its Calvinistic strategy, so the Red Bulls should have more control than in past matches. With the expected increase in possession, it would be prudent to include Marc Rzatkowski in the starting lineup. Despite not being as safe with the ball as Sean Davis or Cristian Cásseres Jr., the German possesses the ability for incisive passes and launching shots from distance, which force the defense to step out further and create space in the final third.
The tournament appears to be going one of two ways for teams: a lack of cohesion leads to scoring struggles or dynamic attackers are taking advantage of weary, unpracticed back lines. The Red Bulls are obviously in the first group. Brian White, Tom Barlow, and Daniel Royer have combined for a single shot on goal in two matches. With White and Mathias Jørgensen appearing on recent injury reports (the latter last appearing for the senior team in April of 2019), there’s the possibility Barlow and Royer will partner up top for the third straight match.
However, there’s always the option of slotting Kaku in either the undesirable second striker or centralized attacking midfielder roles. This would be unfortunate for many reasons, mostly because, in my opinion, he’s thrived when allowed to freely float to the left side of the field. While heralded as an attacking midfielder, the Argentine appears to be a creative winger at heart. Staring at the heat maps for the four matches this season, two things jump out at me: the Red Bulls win when Kaku’s color is concentrated on the left and they don’t when it’s all over the field.
But as Spock once said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” If changing the formation from the 4-2-2-2 into the more familiar 4-2-3-1 generates more attacking opportunities, then it has to be done. The team’s strength isn’t at striker, so why not focus on clogging the passing lanes with more midfielders? Maybe that will also lead to more opportunities for the striker or at least put Florian Valot and Royer in a better position to score.
Useless Statistic: The Red Bulls are 6-1-3 when Sean Nealis plays.
Useless Factoid: One of Cincinnati’s nicknames is “Porkopolis” due to the city’s pork industry.
What do you think are the key storylines heading into the match? Do you foresee any tactical changes that will be made? Let us know in the comment section.
Stats via and observations aided by MLSSoccer.com and Who Scored.