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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Philadelphia Union

Underneath the collision of similar styles are some interesting wrinkles to Thursday’s matchup with Philly

SOCCER: MAY 29 MLS - Orlando City SC 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 took down Orlando City SC, 2-1. Cristian Cásseres and Fábio scored goals. Carlos Coronel stopped a penalty. It was a whole thing down in Florida, a possible season-defining result that showed glimpses of what this team can be when firing on all cylinders. While still in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, a potential upswing could erase any fears of a slogging rebuild.

This week’s opponent is the Philadelphia Union, enjoying a four-match win streak against the Red Bulls. Singular results exist in a vacuum, but defined styles and management philosophies can at least provide some correlation to compare. Last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners are currently at third in the Eastern Conference, bouncing around results without displaying previous dominance. Expect a fast match, as both teams have somewhat similar styles.

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


The two most active players for the Union are the fullbacks, Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo. Their performance is important to Jim Curtin’s system, playing a significant amount of passes and crosses. As noted by Steve Beavon in this fascinating tactical deep dive for Philly Sports Network, the duo pushes “further up the pitch to give the center backs options” which provides an attacking option and helps to overload the wings. They will even slip in for a back-post run, a hypothesized weakness of Gerhard Struber’s Barnsley teams.

The New York Red Bulls have a similar philosophy, relying on the fullbacks to play almost superhuman roles by fully competing on both sides of the game. The challenges of this role are exacerbated by the four-player back line, which provides even less cover on defense than the 3-5-2/5-3-2 formations. Kyle Duncan has been a star this season, enjoying the freedom to push forward and assert himself in the final third. Philadelphia could exploit this advanced positioning, although to be fair, he could too.


Much has been said of the Union’s ability to develop players, but the club’s true strength is in the shrewd international signings. Midfielder Jamiro Monteiro was brought to the club in 2019, but this is his true breakthrough year. Through 16 total matches, the Cape Verde international has four goals and six assists. His dribbling and shot-creating statistics are some of the best in the league, complemented by solid pressing and defensive numbers. His movement must be monitored by the entire Red Bulls defense, but he generally does most of his non-scoring damage from 20-30 yards out.

This match-up presents quite the challenge for Sean Davis, who has been on an ascendant rise under Gerhard Struber. He’s been one of the team’s top tacklers this year, often balancing attacking responsibilities with snuffing out nascent-stage counter attacks. Monteiro is a creative force, but the Red Bulls captain should be able clog the center of the field with help from his swarming teammates.


If there has been a glaring weakness for the Union over the past month or longer, defending crosses and set pieces would be the likely culprit. Not to pick on an easy target, but the Chicago Fire were able to grab a point in a 3-3 draw solely due mental lapses on dead balls. Nashville SC similarly notched a 1-0 victory, and the margin could have been far greater with some even halfway competent finishing. This issue was, obviously, better explored in the Philly Sports Network article, claiming that the issue is coming from man-to-man marking after the kick has been taken.

Center backs Jack Elliott (6’6”) and Jakob Glesnes (6’2”) aren’t necessarily the problem. Most of the goals are coming from late runs, loose balls, or players sneaking in at the back post. The Red Bulls should be able to capitalize on this failure to stop anything in the air, perhaps the first team that is almost inviting Fábio and Patryk Klimala to gravitate towards the center of the field. Kyle Duncan and John Tolkin might similarly be asked to play something more akin to the traditional fullback role in the final third.

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