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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: DC United (boo)

The Red Bulls seem to have an ideal opponent in struggling DC side

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United
Julian Gressel (left) and Patryk Klimala (right) are expected to be key figures on Wednesday night.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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

The New York Red Bulls reached deep into the bag of tricks and pulled out an 87th minute goal to clinch three points against Columbus Crew. The improbable hope has become possible, with Gerhard Struber leading his team to sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The race is far from over, as the next four matches could ensure playoff qualification or book a one-way ticket to the offseason. Streaks eventually must end, but there are opportune times for conclusion.

D.C. United is learning that lesson right now. After a searing run of form under Hernán Losada, the Screaming Eagles dropped out of the playoff window, winless in the last four matches. An Atlantic Cup victory could right the ship and not a moment too soon. The 2021 Major League Soccer regular season is hurtling toward an exciting climax, with the upcoming chapter a battle between two teams heading in opposite directions.

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

WHEELS OFF THE WAGON

The recent stretch has been dismal for D.C. United, no two ways about it. According to Steven Goff of the Washington Post, Losada has used 29 different starting lineups this year, a “season littered with injuries, call-ups, and busy stretches.” Every team deals with such issues, but the drought is happening at the worst possible interval.

Opponents are simply feasting on current weaknesses: the inability to clear away rebounds, bad marking on corners and crosses, and ugly giveaways in the defensive third. The goalkeeping is similarly poor, which has resulted in several goals due to drops, mental errors, and awkward positioning. Hamid is reportedly dealing with a leg injury that is “limiting his kicking and leaping ability,” apparent to anyone watching his recent performances.

Many of the goals appear to be surrendered from a lack of sharpness, which points to coaching issues. Losada has not necessarily lost control of his team as much as D.C. may have previously been outperforming expectations. Next season was supposed to be the big breakthrough after the manager figured things out in year one. Yet, the team is still not out of the playoff race and could just as easily find a rhythm at home, a reasonable fear that could haunt Red Bulls fans every hour, on the hour, until Wednesday night’s final whistle.

IT’S STILL GRESSEL AND KAMARA

Fullback-winger Julian Gressel has been the best creator for D.C. United this season, thriving out wide in the 3-5-2. However, the production was not matching his influence, perhaps a symptom of wider scoring and adjustment issues under the new manager. That status changed, as the German has two goals and three assists in his last eight matches, while continuing to serve as the shuttling bell cow.

Gressel is still almost solely responsible for advancing the ball, whether through dribbling or forward passing. His work in the final third is also essential, creating almost five scoring opportunities per match. On D.C. United, he has the most shots, the most attempted passes by an astronomical margin, and the highest number of completed crosses. And if that isn’t enough, his interceptions are a necessary asset in the club’s gradually-reduced-over-time pressing style. Regardless of which formation the Red Bulls deploy, someone on the back line will be responsible for covering the wide area, hoping to shut him down before the centering pass can be played (heat map via WhoScored).

The likely recipient of his service is Ola Kamara. The Screaming Eagles have improved across the board, but the 32-year-old striker has thrived beyond expectation in his third season at the club. His MLS-leading 17 goals are an eclectic mix of opportunism, aerial success, and smart positioning. A smart player is already sneaking away from the defenders before the pass is played, creating the necessary yard or two of separation for the angle run behind the back line.

It happens very quickly in the above highlight. Before Paul Arriola even received the ball, Kamara turned and began running into space away from center back Jalil Anibaba. That small amount of time and distance is more than enough for a striker at the professional level to punish a slightly slowly reacting back line.

THE STREAK

The Red Bulls are on a seven-match unbeaten streak, a stellar run that could result in a shock playoff qualification. While partially due to backing off the press a tad, much of the success on this run is due to the back line. The constant effort to bar the door in the final third includes vastly improving fortunes in aerial duels, perhaps speaking to the hunger Gerhard Struber has attempted to awaken in his players. The midfield also deserves credit, as opponents are shooting far less than before, which typically means attacks are being snuffed out at all stages. Carlos Coronel pulls off the occasional feat of acrobatic wonder but is rarely called into service, which can sometimes be an even greater challenge for a goalkeeper: sporadic and rare moments of cataclysmic importance.

“This is nothing, piece of cake,” claims Dustin Hoffman as Stanley Motss in the 1997 political satire Wag the Dog. “Producing is being a samurai warrior. They pay you day in, day out for years so that one day, when called upon, you can respond – your training at its peak – and save the day.”

Perhaps echoing those archangel responsibilities, Coronel has served as a sweeper-keeper this season, leading MLS in “defensive action outside of penalty area.” The high press exacerbates the physical demands of the position, requiring more clean-up and ventures away from the box. Opponents sometimes attempt to bypass the swarming defense with hopeful clearances and speculative long balls, which necessitates sure-footed action from the be-gloved backstops.

Coronel might also be called in for heroics of another sort. The Screaming Eagles lead MLS in attempted penalty kicks with ten, including six drawn in the last ten matches. Perhaps the club’s quick-strike playing style and tendency to dance around in the box are conducive to attracting the referee’s whistle.

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