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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Philadelphia Union

What to expect from the league’s other Red Bull-styled club on Saturday night

MLS: Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-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 are on a two-match winning streak, coming off victories against some of the league’s worst clubs. The 2-0 result over Toronto FC was an interesting match that could have ended a few different ways. The high press was able to wear down the opponent, but there were more than a few uncomfortable early moments that could have altered the result. On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for every team against Gerhard Struber’s system drops to zero.

Unlike Toronto and the Chicago Fire, the Philadelphia Union is not a pushover. Fresh off the 2020 Supporters’ Shield and the departures of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, the club has maintained some level of talent and consistency while competing on the dual fronts of Major League Soccer and the CONCACAF Champions League. With a spot in August’s semifinals secured, the Chester-based outfit sporting a 1-2-2 record can return full focus to domestic fixtures.

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

1) Another transition team

Playing up-tempo soccer seems to be all the rage these days, moving past the first line of defense as early as possible. The Union quickly transitions into the attack, usually bringing the ball to the wings and centering to one of the club’s quite capable strikers. Curtin’s team does not press and push the ball with overbearing intensity, but a more measured counter attack that has punished the Red Bulls in the past. A battle of similar styles should be an interesting viewing experience, as neither team hangs back or bunkers.

“I’ll put my hand up and say [playing teams in the low block] was something that was very difficult for us,” said Curtin. “It’s one of the hardest things in the modern game. Everybody can defend now.”

2) Playing out of the back

During the first stanza of last week’s match, the Red Bulls appeared to be attempting to play the ball out of the back, resulting in a few interceptions. This was a curious sight, as the three previous fixtures were a defiant rebuke of possession in the defensive half. If Chris Armas’ team was going to score, the goal should have come on one of several turnovers caused not by Toronto’s anemic press but poor communication. Philadelphia will punish these mistakes, if they are to be repeated.

A few people noted a certain Red Bulls midfielder’s visible frustration with his teammates and their inability to effectively read the situation, particularly after goalkeeper Carlos Coronel misplayed a pass in the 11th minute. Proceedings settled once Toronto’s initial energy dropped off, but perhaps the nervy moments could be avoided from the opening whistle. As the Union tends to press, the best choice is to avoid the short game and focus on long passes and hopeful clearances into a more advantageous position, at least until there is more cohesion. Rotational starters Brian White and Tom Barlow have done well chasing after the ball, performing the dirty work of the Struber’s vertical playing style. This topic was further explored in the tactical analysis written by David Selini, the best thing published about the team in at least a decade.

3) Crossing

One of Philadelphia’s strengths is keeping the ball in the final third, constantly winning back or maintaining possession. A patient cycling of the ball results in an onslaught of crosses and deep runs, creating a challenge not capable of being fully prevented but merely deterred. The effective pairing of Aaron Long and Sean Nealis can snuff out most attacks. This season, the Red Bulls duo has won a combined 39 aerial duels, losing only eight.

The Union’s best striker is Kacper Przybyłko, who is not so quietly one of the league’s top finishers. At 6’4” and deceptively quick, he is a menace in the final third, constantly getting onto the end of passes and crosses. His partner will likely be Cory Burke, another 6’4” target man. The Jamaican international is not as fleet of foot or prolific but has thrived by finding open space while defenses are preoccupied by his front line partner. The third possible starter is Sergio Santos, although a mid-week start against New England will likely result in him being used off the bench.

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