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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Columbus Crew III

The Red Bulls return to Ohio as a different team than they were in last month’s disappointing loss

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

New York Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Columbus Crew SC

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

The New York Red Bulls notched a key win against rivals New York City FC, riding out a third minute goal from Cristian Sleiker Cásseres Yepes all the way to the end. Despite earning three points, the team is still outside of the playoff picture due to all the lead dogs enjoying positive results. There is no time to let up, as a single slip could ultimately spell doom for any postseason hopes. Gerhard Struber has to engineer a few more tactical masterstrokes at the pulse-pounding pace of five fixtures in 15 days.

There are no easy opponents left on the schedule. Columbus Crew SC is slumping but not completely out of the playoff race. Last year’s MLS Cup champions could easily ride the wave to glory or get caught in the riptide and drift out to sea for an ignominious, watery demise. Only one loss in the last seven matches indicates that Caleb Porter has his team ready to play.

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.


There’s an ideal version of the Crew in 2021, but it’s probably not the one most would think. Porter has this grandly mythologized possession-based system, with his teams playing the fabled American tiki-taka that first earned the manager his reputation. Everyone passes, from the goalkeeper to the strikers, interconnecting up and down the field until scoring. However, that strategy has not really been working as of late, at least according to the numbers and the eye test.

This season, the Crew is experiencing the most success when hitting fewer passes, maintaining less possession, and dribbling more. On that same general train of thought, the more opponents cross, the less likely they are to score against Columbus. It sounds counterintuitive that a team would surrender fewer goals in that case, but anyone who has watched New York’s multi-year attempts to break down a packed final third understands otherwise. That sounds a lot like a team that is bunkering, not dawdling with the ball, and trying to kill off games on the wings of the ever-creative Lucas Zelarayán instead of setting the world on fire with beautiful soccer.

That may not be how Columbus wants to proceed under ideal circumstances, but pragmatism prevails during famine and playoff races. Amidst season-long scoring and injury issues, limiting mistakes and packing it in is more important than saving American soccer, especially when even the manager is bemoaning the lack of chance creation. Aggressive, cynical soccer is already the right decision against the press-happy Red Bulls, whose players and staff likely root for the iceberg when watching Titanic.


On that note, Columbus has scored ten goals in the past six games. Seven of those finishes come from crosses, mostly headers. Gyasi Zardes caught fire, responsible for five of those conversions. Playing directly is benefitted by having a striker like Zardes with target man sensibilities. But unfortunately for the club belatedly renamed the Crew, Zardes will be missing this game and every game for the remainder of 2021 regular season with a knee injury suffered earlier this week against Nashville.

Stepping into the role will almost certainly be Miguel Berry, who at 6’3” brings at least the physical end of the target man. Berry has cooled off after some eye-catching midseason form, but his last scoring performance will linger in the nightmares of Red Bulls fans as it came in the form of a 88th minute winner in Columbus last month in what remains New York’s most recent defeat.

It should be a pretty compelling battle between whoever Columbus rolls out (including the possibility of Bradley Wright-Phillips) and the duo of Sean Nealis and Andrés Reyes. The two play well together, forming the backbone of a stingy team that has surrendered few goals over the past month. The American is in the 99th percentile for clearances and aerial duels, while his partner is in that same region and adding some heavy tackling

It also appears that Andrew Gutman was helping out in a more central role against NYCFC. While Nealis and Reyes are still working out the kinks, the presence of an additional defender helps alleviate the pressure on both sides of the ball. Gutman’s pass interceptions, shot blocks, and passing have been critical this season, even if he was originally intended to be more of an attacking presence.


Attempting to decipher the true position of Cristian Cásseres is a years-long process. Some see him as a six, others a rangy box-to-box, occasionally the advanced destroyer, and a few envision a quasi-creative midfielder. Against NYCFC, the Venezuelan appeared to inhabit the fourth role, with all the inherent daring creativity and gambler’s selfishness, especially when lined up in the 3-5-2. (Via

During his academy career, Cásseres was considered an enganche (attacking midfielder of sorts) but occasionally struggled to score. “The typical Venezuelan hitch scored many goals, but he did not score,” shared his former manager at Atlético Venezuela and Deportivo La Guaira, Francisco Velásquez. “Few know that in the beginning it was difficult for him to score… What has been seen [in MLS] does not even reach half of what he will give. People believe that he is a purely defensive and hard-working midfielder, but that is something he acquired. His main virtue is offensive… He is a guy very similar to [Espanyol midfielder] Yangel Herrera, who was a top scorer… Cásseres was a top scorer for his [youth] teams.”

With five goals and two assists this season, he is certainly not having those issues anymore. In the last match, Cásseres carried the ball 30 times, created three scoring opportunities, played two key passes, and completed two crosses. Those are hardly the numbers of Kevin De Bruyne, but all were good enough for the Red Bulls’ best or second-best. His teammates also targeted him more than anyone else, which points to his status as the attack’s fire starter on some days.

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.