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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: DC United

The old rivals have a new look as the Red Bulls return to town

SOCCER: APR 24 MLS - DC United at New England Revolution
Hernan Losada has installed a dynamic new identity at DC United
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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

When last in action, the New York Red Bulls traveled to Canada for a match against Toronto FC. The result was a 1-1 draw, perhaps a missed opportunity to earn more points on the road and climb the table. Striker Patryk Klimala expressed frustration with once again conceding the lead, stating that his side was “the better team.” While not yet a pattern, the summer swoon can form bad habits that seemingly disappear once the MLS season actually starts to matter in September.

This weekend’s opponent is the Atlantic Cup rival, D.C. United. The Screaming Eagles are mid-table in the Eastern Conference, but a single pointeth beloweth thine Bulls of Red. Manager Hernán Losada is in his first season leading the club, having been hired in January from Koninklijke Beerschot Voetbalclub Antwerpen of the Belgian First Division A. His stated goal was to bring “high-energy, vertical attacking soccer” to the nation’s capital, a playing style that should provide some fireworks.

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

HE COULD PROBABLY SHOOT BETTER

There has been a lot of attention paid to the striker position, as is expected. Teams can’t win if they don’t score, so the glory boys at the top of the formation have to produce. Patryk Klimala and Fábio have a combined five goals, which is fine, although a bit underwhelming. As is expected by Gerhard Struber’s system, the intent is to produce opportunities and take risks, no matter how speculative. However, their shooting is quite a bit off target when compared to the league’s top attackers.

Klimala has shot the ball 27 times for an on target percentage of 25.9%. Fábio’s is a quite dismal 20.6%, which is roughly one out of every five for you history and political science majors. By comparison, the almost hilariously confident midfielder-placekicker Wikelman Carmona has a rate of 26.7%, with many of his efforts coming from a seemingly greater distance.

Of course, both strikers bring more to the position than just the simple definition of scoring goals. They are in the league’s top-ten for assists and “passes that lead to a goal”, while experiencing similar success in the delightful “shots leading to a shot attempt” statistic. Anyone with eyes can see that the two are agents of chaos in the final third, but the lack of end product remains a cause for concern. Putting the ball on target more frequently would be a great start, although I’m sure that’s been suggested.

THE 3-5-2

When an American club hires a foreign coach, the expectation is that he or she will bring some fancy knowledge from abroad. Losada is a self-described follower of Marcelo Bielsa, attempting to emulate his countryman’s attractive tactics through his own 3-5-2 (that usually becomes more of a 3-4-3 when the fullback pushes). D.C. United has not quite become the promised offensive juggernaut outside of a recent 7-1 explosion against Toronto FC, but ships can take a while to turn.

This particular formation could cause problems for the Red Bulls, as the extra center back (usually a hybrid fullback role, although Andy Najar will be away on international duty) adds another passing option and helps to avoid the traditional pressing traps. Losada endeavors to have a back line that “can play with the ball at their feet,” with the defensive midfielder “shuttling the ball between the defense and the attack whenever the other team presses.” The objective is to quickly get the ball to the fullbacks that push as high up the field as possible for the dual purpose of opening up space in the center and quickly entering the final third on an overloaded flank.

Julian Gressel has thrived in this role, providing a necessary link to the final third. He is one of the league’s most prolific players in certain statistics, including completed crosses, completed passes into the box, passes leading directly to a shot, and field switches. His goals and assists numbers are lower than in seasons past, particularly the Atlanta United years, but the 27-year-old German should be quite the bothersome presence and keep John Tolkin fairly pinned back. On the other side of the field, Kevin Paredes is one of the league’s top young players, a real pressing juggernaut that loves to push the tempo. The Red Bulls struggled when Toronto maintained space and unsettled the narrow shape, so look for D.C. United fullbacks to do the same.

WHO WILL SCORE?

If the Toronto match were to be wiped from existence, United would be one of the worst scoring teams in the league. Matt Doyle of MLSSoccer.com cited “a distinct lack of final-third quality,” pointing to Edison Flores’ injury as a possible cause. The Peruvian international has been dealing with hamstring problems since May, also being forced to miss the Copa América. Prior to his absence, he was one of the league’s more active attackers, and this presence is missing, unable to help convert the pressure into goals.

Despite the injury of Paul Arriola, the other attacking options are not bad. Yamil Asad is one of the league’s best pressers, causing problems for opposing back lines. Former indoor player Adrien Pérez is always looking to push the ball forward through passes and dribbling. Veteran striker Ola Kamara has been in and out of the lineup under Losada, but his ability to win headers could be a true problem for a Red Bulls defense held together by gum and paper clips. This group does occasionally end up on the same page, but the productivity tends to be limited to matches against clubs at the bottom of the table.

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