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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: New England (again)

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After a whole month apart, the Red Bulls are meeting up with the Revs again

SOCCER: MAY 08 MLS - Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via 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 stormed out of the international break with a 2-0 win over Nashville SC. Fábio scored his first goal and Kyle Duncan added a long distant insurance tally that will be an instant, permanent addition to his career highlight reel. There were tactical shifts, formation tweaks, and increased chemistry, all combining to form a solid performance by a team searching for consistency. Now the challenge is doing it again, without the benefit of excessive preparation time.

This week’s opponent is the Eastern Conference-leading New England Revolution, a mere few fixtures since the clubs last met in battle. Bruce Arena has his team flying, playing the usual brand of static defending that gives freedom to a talented group of dynamic attackers. The Red Bulls will be looking to improve upon the 3-1 loss, with this fixture potentially serving as a cheaply observable appraisal for growth.

Wouldn’t it be funny if the following was a recopying of the Revolution “Tactical Sips” from last month? Management said I’m not allowed to do that. Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.

THE DRAMATIC RESPONSIBILITY SHIFT OF SEAN NEALIS

Heading into the 2021 season, Sean Nealis was expected to play a larger role following the departure of center back Tim Parker. While never outwardly dominating, the 6’4” defender has been in the starting lineup for far more victories than losses. A steady development process yields a serviceable option, reliable and confident to overcome any mistakes or deficiencies in his game.

With Aaron Long out of the lineup, Nealis’ role in the squad has shifted dramatically. No longer the secondary option next to the national team stalwart, he is the veteran tasked with providing stability and leading the back line. Mistakes will no longer be covered by an experienced, faster center back partner. There is also the added responsibility of helping the talented yet volatile Andrés Reyes, who is now the developing prospect with starter potential.

Nealis has improved his game, becoming stronger in possession and adapting to Struber’s high octane style. In addition to being nigh unbeatable in the air, his skillset is becoming that of a well-rounded player. One often cannot choose their meeting with destiny, merely seizing the moment of its arrival. Long’s injury is a tragedy in more ways than one, but the 24-year-old one-time SuperDraft pick has stepped up in his absence. The multi-faceted Revolution attack provides a challenge of strength and speed, another chance to demonstrate quality and growth.

YELLOW LIGHT ON DIRECT CROSSES AND LONG BALLS

A vertical attacking style focused on long balls has peaks and valleys, unable to wear down a back line but capable of catching defenders off guard. The Red Bulls have partially constructed a team to play a more academic version of Route 1 soccer, led by the thunder-and-lightning-and-more-thunder-and-more-lightning pairing of Patryk Klimala and Fábio. Their physical prowess is overwhelming opponents, if only for a necessary few occurrences every match, a rate increased by constant movement forward.

Speculative crosses and hopeful long balls might not play against the Revolution. The back line is one of the league’s best groups at winning aerial duels, far more troubled by ground attacks. Acrobatic shot stopper Matt Turner was erroneously denied last season’s Goalkeeper of the Year award and is similarly adept at controlling his area. The tactical answer could be any number of options from targeting the top of the box in hopes of advantageous loose balls, pushing to the wings, or ignoring amateur columns by sophomoric bloggers and staying the course.

WHO ARE THOSE GUYS?

In nine matches this season, the New England Revolution has lost but a single time. In light of the club’s searing form, that 2-0 defeat to Nashville SC is deserving of further observation, regardless of the sport’s week-to-week idiosyncrasies. How exactly can the Red Bulls jump into that river?

Against New England, Nashville did everything New York normally tries to do. Gary Smith uncharacteristically started two strikers. Alternating between pressing and breaking out quickly, the side tried to catch the back line before the defenders were set. Long balls were largely kept to the ground, turning the match into a track race instead of a boxing fight. Crosses were played to the back post and then redirected back across the goal.

That sounds like a familiar tactical setup and plan. That sounds like a strategy the Red Bulls can replicate. That sounds like a possible three points, ignoring Gillette Stadium’s eternal status as the Magdalen Islands for the best laid schemes of mice and American soccer men.

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