Alright, so maybe the New York Red Bulls aren’t quite that good yet. As Minnesota United brought the undefeated streak to an end on a snowy night in Harrison, expectations will be adjusted going forward. The Red Bulls are not invincible, the second balls still plague the defense and sometimes the finishing just isn’t there. But the high was nice, the unbridled joy brought to a fanbase that has suffered so much over the last few years. For two weeks we forgot our struggles, forgot our issues and simply lived in the moment. We dreamt of glory, thought that all of the games would go as swimmingly as our opening tour of the West Coast. Or maybe it was just me.
But of course, the season is still young. The team is not perfect, but promise was shown even in the demoralizing home opener loss. It seems like every game up until this point has been labeled as crucial for the season, but the Week 4 matchup could genuinely be crucial for the season. After the humbling at Minnesota the Red Bulls are looking to bounce back, to reaffirm their status as one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference. A win shows that energy drink soccer is once again a force to be reckoned with in MLS, and that the team isn’t as fragile as years past. Setting the tone that the team is back on track is important psychologically for the squad moving forward, making Week 4 one of the more anticipated dates on the calendar. Unfortunately, the match that once again could define the season happens to come against the in-form Columbus Crew.
(All cited statistics from FBRef.com)
The Crew are one of the more storied clubs in the league, having been one of the original 10 that were present at the league’s founding. Their status has varied greatly, having been a mid-table team in much of its early years, but also periodically dominating with an MLS Cup win in 2008, and Supporter’s Shields in 2004, 2008, and 2009. Their yo-yo nature has become even more erratic after the Crew were saved in 2019, finishing 10th in the East in the aforementioned year, winning another MLS Cup in the following, and finishing 9th in the one after that. However it seems the pattern will continue in 2022, as the opening three matches have shown a fearsome Crew side that could be genuine Cup contenders going forward.
The experienced MLS manager Caleb Porter has had a tough time since returning to his old Ohio stomping grounds in 2019, struggling with injuries and the aforementioned inconsistency. However Porter is certainly starting to implement his style on the squad, and the sheer talent and depth makes the Crew one of the most dangerous sides in the league this year. They’ve started off hot with nine goals and six points in their first three games, four coming in a demolishing of a solid Whitecaps team, three in a late collapse against San Jose, and two in a comeback against Toronto. The attacking talent of Lucas Zelarayan, Miguel Berry, Yaw Yeboah, and former Red Bull Derrick Etienne Jr. have made Columbus the highest scoring team in the Conference, and the second highest in the league. They’ve taken the highest amount of shots in the league so far, and are second in shots on target only to the Red Bulls. With an xG of only 6.3 they’ve certainly benefited from some fantastic finishing to pad their stats, however they also lead the league in Shot Creating Actions, dismissing any chance of a lucky start.
Caleb Porter’s vision has largely come in the form of quick, direct passing when in possession. The team likes to switch the field quickly, playing from fullback to midfielder, and from midfielder to the opposite winger, who either cuts inside for a shot or passes back to the striker or oncoming midfielders. Their attacks are almost methodical, looking at the recent games one can see that most of their attacks come from this seemingly simple strategy. Porter plays a 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders, and when the Crew are in possession he drops one of the holding midfielders (typically former US national teamer Darlington Nagbe) in between the center backs, allowing both his fullbacks to push forward and take more risks in the midfield. While it can leave them vulnerable at the back, the technical quality of their midfielders allows them to keep the ball and play the game on their own terms.
However the press is often the deciding factor in Red Bulls games. The league knows that New York will press, whether or not they can deal with it adequately on gameday typically correlates with a win or a loss. And yet despite their dominance in their opening three games, they still haven’t faced a true pressing side like the Red Bulls. Over the first three games of the year the Crew have averaged 62 passes under pressure per game, and have been pressured 176 times per game. Red Bulls opponents this year have averaged 124 passes under pressure and have been pressed 294 times.
While the Crew have been able to play their game against Vancouver, San Jose, and Toronto, it’s still yet to be seen how the team will perform against the inevitable pressure. If unable to cope, Porter’s habit of essentially leaving three players to defend in possession will make the Crew vulnerable to counterattacks. Of course, Porter knows that the press is coming and will adjust his game plan accordingly, but the change necessary could blunt the edge of the Crew’s sharp attack. The balance between adapting for the dangerous pressure and maintaining the style that has proven difficult to face will need to be struck accurately by Porter and his staff, or else the Red Bulls have a greater chance than they’d like.
New York Red Bulls (5-3-2)
Columbus Crew (4-2-3-1)
Players to Watch
Lucas Zelarayan, Dru Yearwood & Frankie Amaya
Lucas Zelarayan has been one of the league’s sensations since arriving in 2019, winning the Newcomer of the Year award in his debut season, starring in the 2020 MLS Cup win, and being a bright spot even in the Crew’s difficult 2021 campaign. He’s picked up right where he left off in 2022, starting the year hot with four goals in his opening three games. He leads the league in goals and shot-creating actions, and his playmaking quality has been on full display as well with one assist on the year.
Zelarayan is a classic number 10, a playmaker and entertainer. He can burn players off the dribble with speed and control, and if given too much space he has the quality to consistently score from distance. He is an incredible free-kick taker, and his set-piece delivery has created endless opportunities for the Crew to feast on. He’s the kind of player that one wants to watch even when destroying your team, his skill keeps the Crew ticking and playing well.
Being the primary factor behind the Crew offense, effectively containing Zelarayan will be the most important responsibility for likely midfield starters Dru Yearwood and Frankie Amaya. The young duo have started the year off sensationally, Amaya’s return to a destroyer role has enabled him and Yearwood to fully use their playmaking ability from deeper. Amaya leads the league in tackles and pressures, his effectiveness in winning the ball back has brought out the best of the Red Bulls transition-friendly style, and Yearwood’s dual ability to win the ball back and then drive forward, or play a pinpoint through ball, has made New York a counterattacking force. One only needs to rewatch the Toronto game to see how the pair have been one of the reasons for the Red Bull’s early success, their two-way play has been one of the standout changes for the year. Both their offensive and defensive capabilities will be called into question against the ever-dangerous Zelarayan, they will need to adequately mark him to ensure he doesn’t have enough space to distract the center backs from Etienne, Yeboah, or Berry. Struber will have to coordinate them effectively to make sure they can perform on both sides of the ball, to keep the Red Bulls flowing.
The result of this midfield battle will likely be the decider on Sunday, if Amaya and Yearwood can create counter attacks like they’ve done so far, the Crew’s twice aforementioned vulnerability to counters could be the main threat to their defense. But if Zelarayan can elude the two youngsters, then the center backs and other defenders will be forced to deal with him themselves, leaving space for the other Crew attackers to feast on.
Derrick Etienne Jr
Likely to be watched by Red Bulls fans regardless due to his former ties with the club, the speedy Hatian winger has been a revelation for the Crew ever since his arrival. He showed flashes of promise at New York, but Porter has been able to use him more effectively and he’s become a mainstay in the starting 11. His goalscoring has taken a while to come into effect for the Crew, but like Zelarayan he’s started the year off brilliantly, scoring 2 and assisting 2 in the opening 3 games. His expected goals is by far the highest in his squad, the finishing ability that eluded him in his East Coast tenure has shown itself early on this year. Both his goals this year have been fine finishes, he’s shown quicker decision making and a ruthlessness in front of goal.
Etienne is right footed but plays on the left wing, like many inverted wingers he tends to cut inside and shoot. The Crew’s insistence on stretching the field allows plenty of opportunities for their wingers, evidenced by Etienne’s first goal of the year against Vancouver, where a quick switch by opposite winger Yaw Yeboah found Etienne in acres of space, a great touch and a quick outside of the foot finish found the back of the net. The Red Bulls defense will have to stay disciplined and organized to make sure the Crew don’t have too much space for Etienne to play in, preventing him from cutting inside will be the primary task for the Red Bulls right back.
Klimala has had a mixed start to the season, an admittedly lucky goal in his opening game and a hat trick of assists against Toronto have been contrasted by the anonymous performance and penalty miss against Minnesota United and a lack of finishing throughout. Klimala has been an
intriguing player since his arrival, his outspoken confidence has been criticized, especially when not playing well. One could compare him to a certain Zlatan Ibrahmovic, in personality rather than ability. But the Red Bulls search for a line-leading striker has been well documented since the departure of club legend Bradley Wright-Phillips, and at the moment Klimala is the man to beat.
Klimala is a finisher, his main strength is his ability to stay calm and pounce on opportunities rather than be more physical and play with his back to goal. In an open game like Sunday promises to be, the Red Bulls certainly need the former type leading their line. If New York are to adequately take advantage of any space left in behind, Klimala will need to be playing at his very best, ready and available in space, driving the play forward and either accurately playing it to open oncoming runners or shooting himself. This is necessary for the game at hand and for Klimala himself, as he has the added motivation of oncoming competition for the starting role. The loan signing of Ashley Fletcher brought great excitement to the fanbase, hopeful that Fletcher would provide a challenge for the starting striker role that the already-present Tom Barlow has strangely not been considered for. While visa issues will likely prevent Fletcher from playing on Sunday, Klimala will be looking over his shoulder and should be desperate to impress Struber enough to cement his place in the lineup, to confirm that he is the man to beat. The Pole has a head start against Fletcher, a positive performance against Columbus and the race could be over before it even begins.
The Red Bulls offense returns to its counterattacking best and lead New York to another promising performance, however the Crew’s strength on set pieces and the Red Bull’s weakness defending them combine for an eventual 2-2 draw.