The international break is over, and a sigh of relief echoes around the country. The world’s elite vying for a spot in the most prestigious Cup since 2004’s La Manga was nice, but now returns real soccer. The authentic stuff. The kind of sport that makes you believe in something, a cause greater than oneself. An ethos, overcoming nationalism and cap-ties. Just a couple of college kids and assorted Europeans running really fast for an hour and a half. Red Bull style.
The Red Bulls seem to be indecisive over whether or not they’re actually good, but their return to league action comes with another test of their mettle against defending Supporters Shield winner New England Revolution. Scoring 65 goals over a dominant run in 2021, the Revolution were one of the great MLS teams last season, after years of mediocrity in league play. Bouncing between 7th and 8th in the conference since 2016, the dominance that Bruce Arena’s men displayed in 2021 was shocking to many. In part it was due to three years of preparation following Arena’s arrival at the club to inherit the dual roles of coach and sporting director, the former USMNT and Red Bull coach placing a controlling hand on how the organization ran things. Revolution had two of the league’s best strikers in Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou, one of the league’s best wingers in Tajon Buchanon, one of the league’s best creators in Carles Gil, starring and dynamic fullbacks in DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye, and to Carlos Coronel’s dismay, the league’s (official) best goalkeeper in Matt Turner. However, much of the rapid rise was simply a team of individual stars collectively peaking, to form the unit that crushed the 2021 regular season.
New England ran away with the league thanks to Arena’s set philosophy, his core group of players all handpicked by the experienced coach. Bou, Buchanan, Gil, and Jones all arrived in 2019, the year of Arena’s arrival, with Buksa arriving the year following. As sporting director, Arena was able to cherry-pick the players he knew would thrive in his offensively oriented, transition based system, and it worked like a charm. The Revolution attacked with pace and skill, wasting little time in getting the ball to either Buchanan or Gil, who would drive forward and either take shots themselves or feed the breathtaking Buksa-Bou duo. According to WhoScored, they scored 6 counter-attacking goals in 2021, the league-leading statistics a testament to the transition-based system. After winning the ball back, New England are able to utilize attacking patterns to go into the attacking phase and advance quickly. Their explosive speed was the main factor behind their league leading 65 goals, Arena was not shy about putting numbers into the attack, and the team nearly always finished their chances. However their abilities in possession are not to be understated either, like all great teams they were able to build up slowly as well. New England lead the league in completed crosses, after getting the ball to their wingers and fullbacks it was launched in for Bou and Buksa to feast on. And if the wings were clogged, the skill and vision of Carles Gil consistently gifted opportunities to the other attackers, as the Spanish playmaker also lead the league in expected assists per game. Between the unstoppable speed of Buchanan and the creative ability of Gil, the ruthless finishing of Buksa and Bou, and overlapping runs from both Jones and Bye if needed, Arena’s men steamrollered every team in their path before their unfortunate early playoff exit.
However he who lives by the sword dies by it, and New England’s fatal weakness was often their transition defense. By pouring numbers into the attack New England often allowed counter-attacking chances of their own, making for fantastic viewing but many headaches for their defenders. It took a lot of 1-on-1 defending, as well as quick tracking back from their midfielders to stop attacks, and it didn’t always work. Their defense was average at best, conceding 1.21 goals per game, with the center-back tandem of Henry Kessler and Andrew Farrell struggling to cope with attackers taking them on directly. But despite being on the upper end of the league spectrum with regards to shots against and shots on target against, their frequent escape method was star goalkeeper Matt Turner. Now the preferred starter for the United States, the Jersey boy had quietly been one of the better shot-stopping goalkeepers in the league for years, only rising to more attention as his squad blossomed. Turner was able to make big saves consistently to keep his team in games, earning the Goalkeeper of the Year award and an imminent transfer to historic giants Arsenal for his efforts in 2021. It was argued by many that Turner glossed over many of the issues with the New England side, and the current start to the season may be proving these true.
New England sit 11th in the Eastern Conference, their woes compounded by a disaster in the CONCACAF Champions league that saw them eliminated after a 3-0 win in their first leg against Mexican side UNAM Pumas. They’ve won only once in MLS so far, their most recent result a bad loss to expansion side Charlotte FC. Their defense has collapsed, conceding 8 goals in 4 games in the league, as well as the aforementioned 3 goals conceded in the squandered continental campaign. Their offense has stalled, their expected goals lying at 6, marking them as an average attack for the league so far. It’s a far cry from the dominance of 2021, their rapid ascension to the top seemingly set for a similarly speedy return to mediocrity. It’s still very early days, but the departure of aforementioned speedster Tajon Buchanan to European dreams, and the long-term injury of Matt Turner have revealed the holes in the team that had been noticed by a select few last season.
Looking at the Charlotte loss, one can see the weaknesses of the new New England. The first goal was a thunderbolt by Swiderski, a quick passing sequence left the Pole with a free shot at the top of the box, and the bending effort unleashed left backup Earl Edwards Jr. with little chance. After Gil’s converted penalty, the two following Charlotte goals were direct results of poor transition defense, after losing the ball the New England defenders were unable to come back into formation and fell to two identical pullback crosses. Before the loss in Mexico that again showed an inability to close down spaces quickly enough; the snowy, last minute loss against Real Salt Lake again featured two concessions with transitions largely at fault. The high-risk, high-reward system that won them the league last season is showing more of its high risk after the drop in goalkeeper quality, and the Revolution’s current inability to outscore their opponents has left them struggling to defend leads.
Thankfully for Red Bull, New England’s transition weakness happens to be the Red Bulls strength. The famous high-press system is already known to create potent counterattacking opportunities, as San Jose and Toronto found out earlier in the year. Teams like the Revolution that play openly run the risk of being overrun by the tireless Red Bulls, as the midfield ball winners are more than capable of feeding the attackers quickly after recovering possession, or simply driving forward themselves. The league already knows this, and teams looking to avoid a loss simply turn to the squad’s kryptonite, deep-lying defenses. Minnesota United did this to an extent in their frustrating win in Week 3, and Columbus tried to do it last week as well. Teams know that if they defend long enough, the Red Bulls struggle to break them down and there’s a chance of grabbing a scrappy winner à la Luis Amarilla. Results have historically been dependent on whether or not opponents choose to play freely or not, and despite years of trying to remedy the issue through creative signings, it still hasn’t quite come off yet. Bruce Arena will have his pick of the two approaches, either playing into the Red Bulls hands and playing into New England’s weaknesses by playing as usual, or sucking it up for a game and trying to fix the transition issue later. Being an experienced man, one would expect him to choose the former.
Arena will likely rely on the creative spark of Carles Gil to carry the team’s offense through the game, and trusting the offense to get the job done. However this isn’t the same New England offense that ripped up defenses in 2021. As previously mentioned Tajon Buchanan has left, but furthermore star striker Gustavo Bou hasn’t been included in the last two MLS squads (no injury reported), and his partner Adam Buksa was absent for the last match as well, likely to be affected by his efforts for the Polish national team over the break. The new starting wingers, Arnór Ingvi Traustason and Emmanuel Boateng have not inspired either, amassing a total xG of .5 over their 4 matches. Sacrificing their open style to counter the Red Bulls counters also means placing the scoring burden solely on Carles Gil, who cannot do it himself. And so Arena’s double edged sword is revealed, he must choose between playing with fire and engaging in an open game he is likely to struggle in, or sacrifice the offense and hope for a miracle. I do not envy his job.
New England Revolution (4-2-3-1)
New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1)
With Gustavo Bou absent under mysterious circumstances and Adam Buksa likely to be winded from qualifying to the World Cup, it’s likely to be the veteran American striker to start up top for New England. The now 32-year-old has enjoyed a storied career following his record breaking transfer to Villarreal from the Red Bulls as a highly touted 19-year-old. Altidore struggled in Spain, did well in the Netherlands, struggled in England, and returned to the Americas to become an iconic figure for Toronto FC. He frequented the national team as well, playing in two World Cups and becoming the third highest goalscorer in national team history. After injury struggles and age started to deplete his playing time in Toronto, this year the organization chose to lovingly buy out his contract on Valentine’s Day, and Altidore moved to New England.
No matter which of the two aforementioned strategies Arena chooses for the game, the responsibility always falls on the strikers to score. While Altidore has done this time and time again throughout his career, he has not hit the same levels over his first two matches in New England. After a 30-minute cameo for a debut goal against Real Salt Lake, Altidore struggled heavily in the Charlotte loss. Playing as a lone striker, he had the lowest amount of touches among outfield players on the field despite playing the full game. 4 shots, 1 on target, and an xG of 0.5 added up to a frustrating night for the veteran, and he will certainly be looking to bounce back against the strong Red Bulls defense. Undoubtedly the backup striker at the moment for New England, Altidore will be looking not only for the three points but to prove that he can challenge Buksa and Bou’s duopoly.
Fresh of qualifying for the World Cup with the United States, the Red Bulls captain has enjoyed a strong start to the season following his return from an injury that kept him out of the last campaign. He’s slotted seamlessly back into 2021’s best defense, playing like he never left. His elite reading of the game and surprising pace has made him one of the league’s best since his debut, and his aerial abilities have already factored into the season with Long’s goal in Week 2. He is an asset both on and off the pitch, and the Red Bulls have been lucky to keep him despite interest from abroad.
Against New England, Long will face his toughest test since his return from injury. Jozy Altidore has a unique blend of pace and physicality comparable to strikers like Romelu Lukaku or Hulk. He is more than capable of holding off defenders, and has the technical ability to dribble into open space and finish clinically with his feet or head. The alternatives for New England are even more frightening, the aerially adept Buksa, who utilizes intelligent off-the-ball movement to find pockets of space, or the skillful Bou, who can take defenders on and make them look silly for even a momentary lapse of concentration. Long and presumed center back partner Sean Nealis will have to work hard to contain whichever striker starts, limiting the chances they’re able to get and further stagnating the already weakened New England attack.
Earl Edwards Jr.
More casual MLS fans would be forgiven for not recognizing the name of New England’s backup goalkeeper, he’s enjoyed a short journeyman career around MLS and USL, not able to hold down a starting job anywhere in MLS. After arriving at New England as a free agent in the 2021 season, Edwards Jr. rode the bench as the third-choice behind Brad Knighton, while star Matt Turner ate up the playing time in between the sticks. But after a foot/ankle injury took Matt Turner out for the foreseeable future, Arena decided that it was time for Edwards Jr. to take the starting role, playing him in all 6 games to open the year.
Unfortunately things haven’t gone as well as the 30-year-old would have hoped, conceding 8 goals in the league and 3 in the Champions League to start the campaign. Some of the goals have been to aforementioned defensive struggles from New England, however the notable downgrade in quality from Matt Turner is a liability the Red Bulls will look to exploit on Saturday. Edwards Jr. will have to rise to the occasion if New England are to turn around the early struggles, will have to be a hero at times just like Matt Turner so often is. Backup goalkeeper is one of the most difficult roles in the sport, but there have been memorable ones in recent US Soccer history, such as Ethan Horvath’s heroics in the Nations League last summer, or Dayne St. Clair’s dominance against the Red Bulls a few weeks back. Earl Edwards Jr. will almost certainly return to the bench after Turner’s recovery, but he’ll want a memorable experience while he can get it. And with Turner already headed on a plane to London in the summer, a good run in his absence could make Arena consider staying local for a replacement.
But for all Bruce Arena’s calculating and scheming, the Red Bulls transition is too much for the struggling New England to handle, as the Red Bulls march to an emphatic 3-1 win. If Charlotte can do it, so can we.