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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Toronto FC

What to watch on the field tomorrow as Chris Armas returns to Red Bull Arena

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls
Fabio’s runs to the corner have been a crucial part of the Red Bulls’ strategy in the early weeks of the season
Wendell Cruz-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 registered their first win of the season, downing Chicago Fire FC, 2-0. A disjointed and speculative first half birthed an on-target second, with the defense finally matching the attack. Tasked with stopping a physical opponent sometimes more focused on physical confrontation than creating chances, the back line held firm and secured three points. Now the challenge is to repeat the performance on a weekly basis, paradoxically maintaining consistency in a tactical system built around chaos.

This week’s opponent is a Toronto FC side caught in the throes of a loaded schedule on a protracted road trip. Winless in MLS and on the heels of a perfunctory elimination from the CONCACAF Champions League, manager Chris Armas will have to motivate a squad on short rest after a midweek trip to the Estadio Azteca. A confident Red Bulls side secure in the superiority of the system should coast to a victory, but the most dangerous opponent is the one that you don’t see coming.

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

1) Vertical, pressing, up-tempo Armas

In the preseason, Armas indicated that Toronto would play a quick and vertical up-tempo style. Through five matches, the Reds have scored a fair amount of goals by forcing turnovers and transitioning into the account. His current team is arguably pressing more than his previous outfit, a befuddling prospect that should simply be allowed to exist without examination.

Armas deploys a press that attacks the ball and sets up in the mid-block, attempting to steal the ball and then push up the field, largely through solo dribbles. Waking the Red observed that the most successful defensive plays were coming from the midfield, with the team adjusting to the more accelerated speed of play. While this could pose some problems for the Red Bulls, the long-ball strategy should bypass Toronto’s singular movements. Perhaps the Reds’ tactics will be slightly dialed back in light of the midweek fixture, although the notion was rubbished in the pre-match press conference.

2) Keep going to the corners with Fábio

One of the peculiarities of Gerhard Struber’s system is having strikers chase the ball to the wing, pulling a center back out of position or physically dominating a fullback. The deployment of two target strikers allows for balance, with at least one potential finisher always within range of the goal and additional late-arriving midfielders moving into free space at the top of the box. Against Chicago, Fábio thrived in this inside-outside role, displaying both strength and speed while dishing out two assists.

As expected of all modern clubs, Toronto pushes the fullbacks high up the field and can sometimes be caught outnumbered on the counter-attack. Fábio will likely be hunting down and fighting for the ball against inexperienced center back Luke Singh, a favorable head-to-head matchup for the Brazilian. The 20-year-old defender clogs the middle of the field and has struggled to shut down attacks from the wing. The Red Bulls’ deliberate drag-and-cross strategy can work again, but opponents may begin scheming to reduce the effectiveness.

3) Stop Michael Bradley

At the age of 33 years old, Michael Bradley is still the focal point of Toronto FC. He is the main passing outlet for teammates, the lock picker in the final third, and often the first midfielder back on defense. There are faults to his aging game, including a refusal to dribble and a few slow missteps, but his creative impact on a squad missing Alejandro Pozuelo cannot be overstated.

The Red Bulls should be able limit his influence on the game, with a formation constructed to overload the middle of the field. A player that refuses to dribble does not necessarily have to be stopped, but instead blocked from advancing the ball. Preventing forward movement by stepping into passing lanes is a victory, particularly if the opponent is forced into pressing traps. With four central midfielders, the run-of-play proceedings can be pushed to the wing, forcing Bradley to decide between a lack of involvement on the attack or being pulled out of position in advance of the loss of possession.

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