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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Orlando City

Which strategic battles to watch for as the Red Bulls head to Florida this weekend

MLS: Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls
Caden Clark challenges Junior Urso during the Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over Orlando at Harrison in May
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

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

If there was one positive to be taken from the New York Red Bulls’ scoreless draw against Atlanta United, it’s that the pattern of “two losses followed by two wins” was finally broken. While impressive if lasting an entire season, the predictability of results selected by fate would have become dreadfully boring. The club now enters into a brave new world, freed from binding predestination and instead governed by personal agency.

This week’s opponent is none other than Orlando City SC, a team the Red Bulls have beaten recently. But the Lions are, of course, no pushover, dispatching Toronto, San Jose, and Miami in recent weeks. An away trip to the swamps of Florida promises an interesting challenge, potentially pushing Gerhard Struber’s high-pressing system to its physical limits.

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

BALL ON GROUND

Orlando is an interesting team, in that they break out quickly on the counter attack but without the long balls and deep dump offs associated with such tactics. Players will instead make long solo dribbling runs and hit low passes to spring free a winger or striker behind the back line, oftentimes begun by dangerous midfielders Mauricio Pereyra, Benji Michel, or Júnior Urso. There’s a restraint in the movement, with the attackers remaining organized and in control after securing a turnover. Even the crosses tend to stay closer to the earth, which is unlikely to change due to the international absence of Daryl Dike.

This is different than the typical counter that beguiles the Red Bulls, usually a long ball strategy that causes them to chase wingers or engage in a foot race. Whatever defenders are on the field will be forced onto their toes, sidestepping, shuffling and surrendering space before picking the right moment to step to the attacker or block a passing lane. De facto backline leader Sean Nealis dominates aerial duels, which largely will not be a factor in this match outside of set pieces.

There’s always the chance Orlando starts hoofing the ball forward against the Red Bulls. Teams have a habit of drastically changing their tactics to combat the high press. Oscar Pareja has no qualms about parking the bus when the situation calls for conservatism.

THE ATTACK WILL GO WIDE

In the previous match-up between the two sides, Orlando overloaded the middle of the field and failed to counter as frequently. “I had the intentions in the first half just to dominate the game in the middle because they have a very particular way to play it in there with a lot of numbers and wanted to match that up,” said Pareja. “With the quality of our players, that was the intention. At some point we had it, but we didn’t have that volume of attacking and players who can get in behind it.”

That is not a mistake to be made again. Orlando is at its best when driving through the middle but playing the wingers in behind the back line. Once defenders begin cheating to the wing, there is space to play balls directly to the strikers. Dutch winger Silvester van der Water was acquired this past offseason from Heracles Almelo and has been rounding into form. On the other side of the field is Nani, still one of the most dangerous players in the league.

PATRYK KLIMALA VERSUS ANTONIO CARLOS

A key piece on the Orlando back line is Antonio Carlos. The Brazilian center back was signed to a permanent deal last December after bringing “stability” and “presence” during the successful 2020 season. At 6’3”, he’s an imposing ball winner and will also fearlessly throw his body in front of shots, with a touch of agoraphobia that manifests by rarely pressing forward. Where his numbers tend to soften is on tackles, leaving his teammates to handle dribbling runs into the final third. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Red Bulls to attack him directly, although the sport rarely allows for the targeting and isolation of centrally lying players.

Perhaps Patryk Klimala can be Carlos’ huckleberry. The 6’0” Polish striker is a physical marvel, possessing that rare combination of size and speed in which neither is diminished by the proliferation of the other. After a brief adjustment period, he has acclimated well to the unique back-and-forth pinball nature of the MLS game, playing in a tactical style that requires advanced fitness and some measure of technical ability. At his best, the “Devil” is a menace to center backs with his relentless work rate and nose for goal.

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