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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Sporting Kansas City

Rare opportunity for Red Bulls to face another pressing team could provide plenty of space for Gerhard Struber’s tactical plan to operate in

RZ Pellets WAC v FK Austria Wien - tipico Bundesliga
It’s almost time to see exactly what Gerhard Struber has in mind for the Red Bulls tactically
Photo by Markus Tobisch/SEPA.Media /Getty Images

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

The New York Red Bulls open the 2021 season hosting Sporting Kansas City at Red Bull Arena. Following an unprecedented year of change amidst a century-defining pandemic, questions surround both clubs. So far recently-hired Red Bulls manager Gerhard Struber has played things close to the vest, although his general tactical preferences and playing style are well-known. His adaptation to the sometimes anachronistic nature of Major League Soccer and whether he chooses to adjust will be an ongoing narrative, only to be silenced by a cup victory or a departure.

Last year, Sporting finished the regular season atop the Western Conference and was bounced from the playoffs in the Conference Semifinals. Manager Peter Vermes is well into his second decade managing the club, a run that includes one MLS Cup and three Open Cups. The club’s tactics are of a similar pressing archetype to the Red Bulls, although somewhat different in nature. The compelling contrast of the two styles provides an enticing starting point against which to judge Struber, the ideal Opening Day opponent that likely will not be seen again until next year.

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

1. The new Sporting Kansas City press

As opposed to a space clogging gegenpress, Vermes’ pressure was the traditional frenzy of attacking the ball on a man-to-man basis, populated by unheralded hard working players. The simple ethos of forcing turnovers and breaking forward turned the club into a consistently tough opponent, an always annoying date on the schedule. Perhaps influenced by the global takeover of the German tactical innovation, Kansas City is adopting a more familiar style to Red Bulls fans.

“We have tweaked a couple of things in the way we set up and the way we press,” Johnny Russell told The Blue Testament. “We are trying to set traps for teams. It’s been working really well in training… which is pleasing because we only had two or three weeks working on it. That shows that everyone is really concentrating in the training sessions.”

New York cannot play fast and vertical all the time, acknowledged by the acquisition of possession-focused goalkeeper Carlos Coronel. With the Red Bulls’ integration of a new tactical style in the midst of a shortened preseason, there may be a few more errors than normal when attempting to build out of the back. The rebuilding back line and midfield group could fall prey to the very same havoc and traps they are designed to create.

2. Crosses, crosses, crosses, and long balls

The long game was once the bane of the Red Bulls’ existence, whose appearance was a sure sign the team was out of ideas and headed for a loss. It was death by a thousand crosses, often delivered to an overmatched striker asked to perform outside of his skillset, incapable of completing the receiving and converting task. Those yearning for a more possession-based style should probably listen to matches on the radio, at least for the foreseeable future.

Struber’s teams are not incapable of playing short passes in quick succession, but their purpose is to generally draw out the opposing defenders and not to advance the attack. The low percentage switch, cross, and starter of the counter-attack is the team’s ideal, always pressing forward with reckless abandon. The Red Bulls will be crossing with such frequency that the ball should rarely penetrate zones 16 and 18 before being centered. The addition and retention of multiple target strikers should allow for this playing style to thrive and dominate, instead of serving as a de facto white flag.

3. What is Cameron Harper?

The American youth international was brought into the fold this offseason, described in the initial press release as a winger. Struber has never been known to play “wide midfielders,” instead preferring the deployment of rangy fullbacks and strikers that chase the ball to the sideline. Harper fits the latter designation, a tricky second striker expected to provide equal measures of creativity and goal scoring prowess in the final third.

This experiment should work, enabling him to easily surpass his stated objective of “five goals and five assists.” MLS back lines are an interesting animal, composed of physical marvels that often hesitate to step into challenges. Harper will have more time on the ball than he expects with the opportunity to take multiple touches before being closed down. The arguable claim could be made that the 19-year-old will face less immediate pressure than in Scottish reserve team football. The undersized quasi-striker must recognize and take advantage of these chances, recognizing that the extra step or two is available to open up a teammate or find a better angle for a shot on goal.

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