Are the Red Bulls.. good? It’s only been two games, but the potential that ardent supporters promised was there may actually be showing after two convincing wins on the road to open the year. New York hasn’t won its first two matches of the year since 2017, and to do so as conclusively as they did, while traveling, may just point to a competent team. A good team. A contender, even. The words linger on the tongue, sweet like honey. They are a fresh cup of water after a long walk through the desert of the post-Marsch Red Bulls years. Inaccurate words perhaps, but when has dreaming ever hurt?
According to Google, someone famous said that “all big things in this world are done by people who are naïve and have an idea that is obviously impossible.” So let us dream and be naïve, let us shoot for the MLS Cup and settle for a Conference final appearance. Continuing the energy levels and attacking efficiency that have been displayed so far may seem “obviously impossible”, so let us hope for it anyways. Let us, or maybe just me, battle on believing that Tom Barlow will in fact carry home the Golden Boot come October. It might happen. It probably won’t, but it might.
Next up on the New York Red Bulls inevitable journey towards an MLS Cup is Minnesota United, lead by Adrian Heath, who has lead the team since its inception in 2017. The Loons have quietly been one of the better teams in the Western Conference, steadily rising under Heath’s guidance. They failed to make the playoffs in their first two years of existence, went out in the first round in 2019, and made a surprising Conference Final run in 2020 before exiting in the Conference Semifinal in 2021. Smart roster moves have enabled Minnesota to maintain a solid squad throughout the years, keeping ahold of key players like Ike Opara, Hasani Dotson, and until recently Jan Gregus. Post-2019 the team has consistently been one of the best defenses in an offensively potent Western Conference, and although at times lacking attacking flair the squad is a formidable opponent.
Heath has lined his side up in the flexible 4-2-3-1 for years, the team is comfortable with the system and Heath’s demands of it. The twin defensive midfielders, historically being US youth teamer Hassani Dotson and Cuban hardman Ozzie Alonso, provided coverage for a defense consistently among the most stubborn in the league. It’s become an identity of sorts, and with goals conceded per game averages of 1.29, 1.24, and 1.26 over the last three years it’s unlikely to change. Minnesota United defend as a team, contrasting with the growing high-press movement they prefer to move as a team, covering their zones and pressing conservatively. When they do press it’s typically one player who goes rather than the whole team, Heath prefers to have the defense at a standstill, ready and waiting for when the eventual pass is released.
This might seem like heresy to Red Bulls supporters, but it’s an effective system when performed well. And as mentioned before, the Minnesota United squad knows the system. The 20 men taken to Minnesota’s opening match against Philadelphia average 1.7 years at the club, 2.1 years if you only count the starters. The team has spent years perfecting Heath’s ideal setup, and with one of the older squads in the league everyone on the Minnesota roster knows what they have to do in any given situation. It’s a system that has proven hard to break down for MLS teams, and the historically creatively stagnant Red Bulls will have to dig deep into their offensive resolve to break the Midwesterners down.
It’s no secret that the Red Bulls have struggled against teams like Minnesota, the emphasis on the high press means that New York have often struggled to figure out what to do when they are ceded possession. The team has tried to counteract this with more creative signings like Caden Clark and Dru Yearwood, but one still shudders remembering the days when the premier tactic was hopeful long balls to the poor, 5’9 Daniel Royer. As good as the Minnesota defense has been historically, their offense has struggled to reach the same level, so in Shep Messing’s words “the onus will be on New York”.
Quick passing, precise off-the-ball movement, and natural attacking finesse are key to dismantling systems like these, but the execution is much harder than writing it down. In the past two games much has been asked of midfielders Frankie Amaya and Dru Yearwood defensively, but in this game their attacking abilities will be just as needed. The aforementioned two and whoever starts at attacking midfield will be tasked with finding the strikers in the tiny pockets of space left for them, and will likely need to contribute to the shooting as well. Alternatively if the Red Bulls choose to utilize the wing-backs, quick shifting from side to side is necessary in order to create crossing opportunities, crosses that will have to be finished by the strikers. Opportunities will likely be few and far between against the tough Loons defense, so the finishing of the few chances available will be just as important as the creation of the chances themself. Every team member will have to do their job accurately in order to break down Minnesota, an efficient performance is crucial to how the game goes.
Red Bulls (3-5-2)
Minnesota United (4-2-3-1)
One of the many shrewd signings Minnesota has made over the years, the Finnish international was signed from Spanish side Sporting Gijon halfway through the 2019. He quickly established himself as a regular on the right wing under Adrian Heath, and became a key player in the system. Last season he was the side’s top scorer, his impressive finishing ability enabling him to spearhead the side’s attack even from the wing. Lod is a solid dribbler, but his greatest strength is his attacking positioning. In his years at Minnesota he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, always finding pockets of space to receive passes and put shots on goal. He’s had a penchant for rebound goals in the past, however he loves to score by opening up his body and bending first-time shots into the bottom corner, similar to Lewis Morgan’s second goal against Toronto.
Playing for a team that doesn’t score much, Lod’s clinical finishing is crucial to ensuring they can get results. He’s almost always in a good spot to receive the ball, and if given an inch of space he will punish opposing teams. In a game where chances will be few and far between, Lod is Minnesota’s most likely to put any away, especially after his promising performance in Week 1 against Nashville where he scored his team’s lone goal. The New York defense will have to keep a close eye on him while Minnesota’s in possession, as they cannot afford to give up opportunities and hope that Carlos Coronel can save them.
This may have some New York fans shuddering, but Barlow may have a big role to play in the home opener. After his first start of the season against Toronto, Gerhard Struber had nothing but praise for the oft-maligned Missourian, with his work rate ensuring the success of the New York press. His promising start to the season means that with new signing Ashley Fletcher unlikely to be available to start, Minnesota will be both an opportunity to build on his successes and ward off the coming competition. Barlow’s main job will be to put pressure on the Minnesota center-backs, forcing mistakes out of a backline primarily wanting to keep possession. As mentioned before chances will be few and far between against the stingy Minnesota defense, so any chances Barlow’s effective pressure can create will be greedily taken by a Red Bulls attack likely to be starved. Furthermore, Barlow will have to show that his finishing has improved from last season, as being clinical is crucial in a game like this. A good performance here and Fletcher will have to put up more of a fight to win the starting job upon his eventual arrival, and the entire striker corp will benefit in the long term. This game is likely to be a turning point in Barlow’s season if he starts, and a positive performance from him benefits the entire team on Sunday.
Argentine playmaker Emmanuel Reynoso has been the go-to man for playmaking for Minnesota in the past years, and this year is unlikely to be any different. He is the driving force behind the attack, a classic number 10, providing opportunities for the forwards and scoring from the midfield as well. Tasked with replacing now-Dynamo man Darwin Quintero in 2020, Reynoso has become the star of the team, earning himself a place in the 2021 MLS All-Star roster. Reynoso had a stellar year in 2021, his .33 expected assists per game placing him in the top 5% of MLS creators. Although his attackers did not always finish the opportunities he created his vision and passing, as well as dribbling and shooting ability, made him a consistent danger for Western Conference defenses.
Minnesota United’s primary concern is not their attack, so if a chance appears it’s likely that Reynoso will be behind it. The New York midfield will have to track him carefully to make sure he’s not afforded too much freedom, because with a single lapse of concentration he’s more than capable of finding Lod or any of the other Minnesota danger men. Restricting his influence on the game is the easiest way to stagnate the Minnesota attack, so winning the midfield battle will ensure that the Red Bulls stay on the front foot. If Reynoso is stopped, Klimala & Co can focus on breaking down the fearsome defense, and a positive result becomes all the more likely.
Despite all the positivity surrounding the first two matches of the Red Bulls 2022 campaign, one of the most surprising storylines has been the absence of Caden Clark. Following his return from RB Leipzig, the teenager has had to settle for two substitute appearances totaling 59 minutes. Clark seemed to have lost favor with Struber after his ill-timed appendicitis in 2021, however the club bringing him back for a Last Dance season seemed to signal that Struber wanted him around. Granted the season is two games old and Struber is likely to change his ideal midfield throughout the year, but the positive performances of Clark’s competition, Dru Yearwood and Omir Fernandez, may keep him out of the starting 11 for the time being. Furthermore the soon return of new Designated Player Luquinhas and Venezuelan duo Wilkeman Carmona and Christian Casseres Jr may spell trouble for Clark. His Minnesota homecoming of sorts may be the final chance to prove that he deserves to be, at the very least, the first man off the bench before the further competition arrives.
But Clark may also be exactly the type of player that the Red Bulls need against Minnesota. Trained in the Barcelona Residency Academy in Arizona, his technical ability makes him able to operate in the tight spaces that will likely populate the Minnesota defense. His ability to retain the ball while dribbling and play quick, incisive passes is what is needed to break down the compact defense, his creativity is arguably unmatched in the entire Red Bulls squad. However choosing to drop the in-form midfield trio of the moment is a risky decision, so Struber’s final choice on the matter will be one to watch before the game. If Clark sees the field his skillset is one suited for the game at hand, and a good performance could be exactly the one needed to bring him back into the lineup.
The stalled Minnesota attack fails to materialize, and the recent run of good finishing continues as the home crowd guides the Red Bulls to stun the Loons in a 3-0 win.