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A Couple Or Three Things: triumph in Toronto

What we learned from another Red Bulls masterclass on the road

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC
Gerhard Struber increasingly has the team engineered to his liking.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls picked up where they left off from San Jose with a 4-1 win in Ontario over Toronto FC. With the heading into next week’s home opener in near-perfect form, OaM tells ya a couple or three things we learned on Saturday…

Lewis Morgan is a star

New York’s signing of Inter Miami wideman Lewis Morgan over the winter remained something of an enigma until actual games were played. A paradox of the Red Bulls completing such a precise addition on the very first day of the offseason was that Morgan was practically forgotten about by the time preseason came along. The 25-year-old Scotland international was one of the financially-largest intra-league acquisitions in MLS history and a clear upgrade in the attacking midfield area where New York had struggled in 2022, but a lack of statistical production on a poor Miami team blunted any fan buzz.

But ever since putting the shirt on for the first time last weekend, Morgan has done nothing but live up to the phantom hype. After an eye-catching debut in San Jose where he assisted on the first goal of the season from a wingback role, Morgan had a breakout performance to say the least in his first Red Bulls game as an attacker in Toronto. Operating from a wide right position in Gerhard Struber’s more conventional 4-4-2, Morgan’s speed and enthusiastic movement into space was rewarded with a hat trick against a lethargic Toronto defense that should have been four if not for an erroneous late offside call.

The question of which position Morgan settles in at is primed to be one of the pivotal calls of the early season for Struber. The Austrian manager said post-match that his team is prepared to play in different formations depending on the opponent. Morgan’s display on Saturday will perhaps cause Struber to lean more towards the 4-4-2 as the season goes on and new additions arrive.

Struber finally has the inside-out strikers he seeks

Another player who thrived in the team’s square setup on Saturday was Tom Barlow, fresh off a critic-silencing victory cigar goal in San Jose. Barlow this time got the start at the top of the formation, and Struber went out of his way to praise the St Louisan’s work in pressuring Toronto’s backline on both sides of the ball. As I wrote last year, Barlow has the type of athleticism and size that makes him a tactical weapon in systems like Struber’s even if his technical shortcomings often disappoint fans. Barlow even came close to scoring for the second week in a row with a trademark interception and crash onto goal that was stopped by Alex Bono, and has given Struber a luxury in the target forward role when Ashley Fletcher arrives.

Patryk Klimala didn’t get his name on the scoresheet, but did earn what’s now being referred to in RBNYland as a “Pat Tryk” in assisting each of Lewis Morgan’s three goals on the day — the first two being shallow cutback crosses from the right channel and the third coming after an impressive display of strength and vision to muscle off both Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Jacob Shaffelburg in the center circle. The man who is somehow still only a youth international for Poland has been as much of a setup man in the final third as the ruthless goalscorer he styles himself as, and it’s likely all according to plan in the mind of Gerhard Struber.

Struber’s teams in Austria and England were known for using multiple strikers to both pin opposing defenders back and drag them away from the goalmouth while serving as wide and deep passing options. While such play struggled to manifest for much of 2021, with Struber largely abandoning a two-striker formation later in the season, it appears that a full preseason has given the team a stronger purpose in the final third. With the team’s second line of attackers already racking up production, it will feel like a bonus if Klimala puts up double-digit scoring numbers this year and Barlow contributes just about anything at all.

Can they play this way at home?

If San Jose and Toronto are perhaps faulty measurements of a team’s prowess, it’s difficult to think of a more generic MLS team than New York’s next opponent Minnesota United. Adrian Heath’s team — who are always in the playoffs, somehow, I guess — has in fact done nothing but draw games 1-1 so far this season, first in Philadelphia and then at home against Nashville. They even play in a standard low-block 4-2-3-1 in which Heath seeks to get his players to nail the fundamentals rather than go on adventures.

Even before Gerhard Struber, sides content to sit deep have challenged Red Bulls teams set up to thrive on opponents’ mistakes. But as mentioned above, Struber has shown more attention to matching the shape of the opponent than any previous energy drink era manager, and his choice of formation in next Sunday’s home opener could offer a glimpse into how his team will solve problems through all of 2022.