The offseason brings out the worst in men. Ritualistic weekly viewing of disappointing losses is a habit not easily broken, the cravings haunt many a supporter. Some turn to social media, endlessly scouring pages for inklings of content about their favorite club, only to be disappointed when the only content is more Homegrown signings. Many turn to other leagues, vainly hoping they can replace what was lost, and simply pretend they never cared in the first place. Even the club’s management has appeared to become just a little restless as the offseason wraps up.
But nothing compares to the quirks of Major League Soccer, the joie de vivre of seeing highly decorated European wingers get completely shut down by recent college graduates. Nowhere else in the world will you see World Cup finalist Gonzalo Higuain share the field with a man literally named Indiana. You’ll never see anything like the MLS is Back Tournament anywhere else, a random one-time cup competition designed solely to give the teams a chance to play in Disney World.
And finally, it’s back in the most real sense it has been in a few years. Not the MLS is Back Tournament, I mean. MLS, the tournament, is back. Sorry if that was confusing.
Anyway…who are the Red Bulls playing? San Jose? Who are they?
(All cited statistics courtesy of FBRef.com)
San Jose are yet again under manager Matias Almeyda, the Argentine former World Cup player whose long, flowing locks and honest quotes make him one of the most interesting managers in the league. Entering his fourth year with the club, his unique man-marking defensive system makes the ‘Quakes a vastly entertaining squad to watch not necessarily because of talent but because of sheer unpredictability. San Jose burst out of the gates in 2021 with 3-1 and 4-1 wins against FC Dallas and D.C. United respectively, and showed attacking promise with a young core headlined by the West Coast wonderboy Cade Cowell. However defensive issues plagued the team throughout the year, and gaps were exploited again and again as they quickly became known for having one of the worst defenses in the league, a label justified after their 5-0 loss to Orlando a month after the D. C win. San Jose’s 11 game winless streak in the middle of the season eventually cost them their 2021 season.
The Earthquakes’ entertainment factor largely resulted from Almeyda’s insistence on a particular man-marking setup that he had used throughout his managerial career. It centered around the high work rates of his players, who would all track their runners as their opponents went into the attack, utilize a specifically timed press to win the ball back, and then play the ball forward to one or two players who stayed forward so they could start a counterattack. With the pace and playmaking of Cade Cowell and the lethal finishing of MLS legend Chris Wondolowski, the system worked well in its early days. But there’s a reason why team man-marking isn’t used at the professional level, intelligent players will use quick movement to disorganize defenses and create gaps in the defense, leading to wide open spaces that can easily be taken advantage of. Eventually the league realized what the Earthquakes were doing, and the they started losing badly. Results like the Orlando loss were commonplace, and Almeyda had to readjust to more traditional zonal marking systems just to salvage games. The switch nullified many of their counterattacking threats for a long time, and their attack was stale for much of the season. But Almeyda still wanted the Earthquakes to play on the counter, and when the balance was finally struck they were able to reignite some of their attacking flair, most notably in a famous 4-0 demolishing of Austin FC, and a 4-3 thriller against Real Salt Lake in their penultimate game.
Both the Earthquakes and the Red Bulls are teams with well-known styles that operate using little-known players. Neither team is among the league’s financial elite, as both club’s managers pointed out this week, but their usage of particular and only mildly successful systems will make the clash an interesting one to watch. The game will certainly be an open one, as the Red Bulls always run the risk of being overrun in behind with their high pressing system. If San Jose can adequately build out of the back, their speed and decisiveness will create real opportunities for the defense to deal with. On the contrary, if the Red Bulls can successfully win the ball back consistently, the gaps that arise from the man-marking system will be nerve-wracking for Californian viewers. US national team part-timer Jackson Yueill’s performance will be a crucial one, as a playmaking defensive midfielder similar to a 2021 Sean Davis his role in transitioning from defense to attack will be crucial. Similarly to most Red Bulls games, if the Earthquakes are able to adequately play out of the press, then problems ensue as New York will have to rely on a historically creatively lacking offense to create chances.
San Jose Earthquakes (4-2-3-1)
New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1)
Players to Watch
Cade Cowell & Caden Clark
Getting the obvious picks out of the way, the two Cades are the ones that many will be keeping an eye on throughout the year. The high potential American youngsters have shown great promise in their time in MLS, with Clark already earning a move to Europe and Cowell being linked with one his entire career. Both are positionally ambiguous, with Clark not exactly fitting between an 8 and a 10 and Cowell struggling to find a place between winger and striker. They’re expected to grow into starring roles in their respective sides, and although both will leave eventually they are wonders to watch in the meantime.
Cowell is a gifted athlete, having broken out in the MLS at the age of 16. Physically he can still dominate grown men, processing speed and dribbling ability to match. But his precocious athleticism isn’t the only bright spot, he is a composed finisher and a surprisingly good passer, a trait many came to realize after his phenomenal outside-of-the-boot assist to Christian Espinoza in a 2021 game against FC Dallas. Having been earmarked to replace the great Chris Wondolowski, his powerful running has made him a key piece in the counterattacking system seemingly made for him. Cowell averaged 5 progressive carries a game in 2021, he is direct when he gets the ball and is not dispossessed easily. With the game against the Red Bulls sure to contain an abundance of open space, Cowell will be a terrifying sight to watch for the Eastern side of viewers, but a joy for neutrals.
Clark seemingly came out of nowhere years ago, but was sensational at the USL level and seems to be headed in the right direction. Although the MLS life has not been easy for the Medina, Minnesota man, his passing vision and eagerness to take shots on has justified the hype. Many Red Bulls hope he can fulfill the great expectations placed on him in what is likely to be his last year with the club, spearheading the team creatively and dishing out assists to a gleeful Tom Barlow. The Red Bulls famously have struggled creatively when unable to press effectively, lacking the incisive passing and quick movement necessary to break down the low blocks they frequently face. If Clark can raise his game from years past, his creative ability will surely be put on display against a porous ‘Quakes defense.
The newly signed Scotsman has a lot to prove after spending his first two MLS years with a poor Inter Miami side. Given the opportunity to once again be a star man on a bigger stage, many fans will be intrigued to see how the fresh face begins his New York tenure.
Morgan is expected to play on the right side of the field, a role he played well at Inter Miami with his penchant for accurate crossing and progressive dribbling. Although these chances were not often properly finished in Florida, the ability is still there and needed in the aforementioned creatively lacking Red Bulls offense. Assumed positive preseason performances have kept him in Struber’s lineups throughout the friendly tour, but competitive action is a new challenge.
It’s still unclear whether Struber will play his preferred 3-5-2 or the more natural 4-2-3-1 in the long term (defensive options at the moment point to the latter being used for now), but either way Morgan has little competition at right winger or wingback. A good start against San Jose essentially cements his spot in the league lineup, and gives him the star status that Red Bulls fans are desperate for.
The 24-year-old former USYNT goalkeeper won the starting spot in San Jose midway through 2020, and has quietly been one of the better goalkeepers in the league. The American faces more shots on target than 90% of goalkeepers in the league with an average of 5.3 per game, showing the tedious task he faces. But still he’s in the top 6 percent for MLS goalkeepers in saves per game, averaging 3.9 in 2021. Despite being on the shorter end of goalkeepers at 6’1, he processes good reach and diving technique, keeping him between the posts in a Western Conference loaded with good shooters. Furthermore, Marcinkowski is a tremendous passer, completing an average of 8.42 passes per game, which puts him in the top 3% of MLS goalkeepers. This isn’t just easy passes to his center-backs either, Marcinkowski’s average pass travels 40 yards and he completes nearly 50% of these longer passes, a percentage that again places him among MLS goalkeeping elite.
As previously mentioned, San Jose’s ability to escape the Red Bull pressure will be a key component in whether or not they will be able to compete on Saturday. Marcinowski is an accurate long passer, and will be a vital asset to retaining possession and essentially skipping over the dangerous press. San Jose’s defensive weakness will likely mean they will concede a lot of shots, but Marcinowski’s shot-stopping ability will help keep the game within reach for the Westerners. Assuming he can perform at the level he did to earn him a spot on the Olympic qualifying roster in 2020, he will surely be a frustrating figure for the Red Bulls offense on gameday.
The Red Bull center back tandem is able to stifle the threat of the counter, and the high press works like a charm to earn the Red Bulls a nervy 3-1 win