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Three Things to Watch: New York City FC

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A tactical preview of tonight’s Hudson River Derby matchup as MLS gets back to regular season action

New York City FC v New York Red Bulls - MLS Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Following the adjournment of the MLS is Back Tournament, your favorite soccer league and mine is resuming in local markets. The New York Red Bulls start the foreseeable six-match schedule against rivals New York City FC. The Hudson River Derby is back in action, albeit without the supporters some consider a key part of the series.

The Red Bulls are attempting to rebound from a dismal showing in Florida. After starting with a 1-0 win over Atlanta United, Chris Armas’ side slumped in two listless performances against Columbus Crew SC and FC Cincinnati. The past is the past, and the season is still young with a spot in the playoffs eminently achievable.

NYCFC had a slightly better Disney experience, sneaking into the knockout rounds with a third fixture victory against Inter Miami. The homeless Blues even pulled off a Round of 16 win over Toronto FC before falling to eventual champion Portland in the quarterfinal. It wasn’t the ideal finish, but the team gelled and improved as time progressed.

It was a tale of two tournaments, with one team starting hot and burning out fast, the other beginning at a crawl and progressing into a sustainable jog. Now they face off once again in a battle of tactical philosophies. Here’s what to watch as the Red Bulls take on the New York Wanderers at Red Bull Arena.

A LOT OF TIME TO THINK

Despite receiving unending criticism of varying merit, Chris Armas is an intelligent manager and something of a tinkerer. Those qualities are a double-edged sword, leaving one prone to second guessing and lily gilding. His foremost example of overthought is the poor decision in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals to back off the trademark high press. According to Taylor Twellman, Armas would have made this tactical change with or without Kemar Lawrence, whose injury was possibly erroneously claimed as the reason for the failed chess move.

Nearly a month has elapsed since the Red Bulls’ loss to Cincinnati in the MLS is Back Tournament. That is a lot of time to tinker with the squad and think about the failure to score in 266 straight minutes. While some may hope for a deeper, more strongly drilled commitment to the high press, that’s not his modus operandi. Armas is not going to send out the squad playing the same way as in the past. There are going to be new wrinkles, creative dead ball setups, and possibly players integrated into the squad. A month of training with a full squad will lead to a fully formed game plan. Whether those changes will be lauded as brilliant strategy or disastrous meddling has yet to be revealed.

In his Red Bulls tenure, Armas is 3-0 with a month or more to prepare. Maybe that means something and maybe it doesn’t, but undefeated is undefeated. It’s the closely grouped matches after that appear to be a source of confusion, hesitant decisions, and over analysis.

ANOTHER POSSESSION OPPONENT

NYCFC must be coached by Linda Blair because they love possession. They’re actually managed by former Celtic gaffer Ronny Deila, who maintained the club’s passing oriented attack, a hallmark since the inception days of Patrick Vieira. NYCFC completed at least 400 passes in each of the past three matches.

The team likes to play out of the back, with defensive midfielder Alexander Ring seeing a high volume of passes. The other key outlet is left back Ronald Matarrita, who sent an impressive 70 passes against Portland and is routinely the top option. Red Bulls right back Kyle Duncan will have his work cut out for him. He’s been stellar on the attack, but his defense is a work in progress. It is important the 23-year-old U.S. youth international does not allow Matarrita to dominate his side of the field and play into the attacking third.

As always with the high press, the objective is not to necessarily close down opposing players or create immediate turnovers every time. It’s more important to block the passing lanes, forcing meaningless back passes or low percentage long balls. Ring and Matarrita are free to receive the ball, but they cannot be allowed to turn and switch the field or cross the midfield blocks. This is the kind of opponent against which the Red Bulls’ high press typically thrives. They failed against Columbus, although it is possible fitness and fatigue were factors. That excuse doesn’t exist in this match.

SCORE SOME GOALS

The front office knows the team is struggling to score goals. While Samuel Tetteh is a talented player, his loan was clearly not the first, second, or possibly third choice acquisition. When fully established with the club, whenever that may be, he will be given opportunities to claim a regular spot in the starting lineup. Unfortunately, the Ghanaian winger-striker is not going to be available for the near future, possibly a significant amount of time.

Outside of Florian Valot’s goal against Atlanta, the most active attacker was Daniel Royer. The Austrian, converted to striker in Armas’ 4-2-2-2, managed six shots. That enormous amount of scoring opportunities was almost eclipsed by Omir Fernandez in the Cincinnati match. Perhaps the 21-year-old could see more playing time, as the typical front four was largely uninspired and lacked creativity in Florida. There’s also Ben Mines who was impressive in his substitute appearance, demonstrating real thought and the intent to do something other than mindlessly whip crosses into the box.

The club’s two strikers, Brian White and Tom Barlow, have been a complete non-factor in 2020’s five matches. The former came in with big expectations after posting an impressive scoring rate per 90 minutes last season, but he recently appeared to struggle with an injury. Barlow looked serviceable in 2019 but is largely dependent on good service which has been lacking.

There’s a third striker, Mathias Jørgensen, but we don’t talk about him.