In a week where the Tri-State Area appears to have begun the annual shift between its gray and frozen season to its slightly-less-gray and muggy season, local soccer fans will be hoping the rising temperatures correspond with some more heat on the field.
The New York Red Bulls currently sit 4th in Major League Soccer and 2nd in its Eastern Conference — and have done it all without recording a win at home in the season’s opening month and change. The team has a perfect record on the road after routs in San Jose and Toronto were followed by a snatch-and-grab win off a late own goal in New England last weekend. But in the team’s opening homestand at Red Bull Arena last month, a frustrating 1-0 loss to Minnesota United was followed by a 1-1 draw with Columbus that managed to be equally confounding.
In his press conference ahead of the team’s return to Harrison this weekend to face CF Montréal, New York head coach Gerhard Struber was conscious of the need to get a result at home as proof to not only fans and observers but to his own team that their dominant away form has not been a fluke.
“The win in New England shows a sexy picture, but we still have so many to-dos,” said the Austrian manager.
“I think now is the time for a big win at home. This is my expectation on Saturday for my boys, for my coaching staff and for me that we have to win at home. We have to show our fans our power from the first second and how much work we’ve put into our style of play. I think then it is very difficult for Montréal. When we are on the same page and have the right energy and tactical setup in every phase of the game, then I have a very good feeling we win this game at home.”
However Struber seemed to illustrate Montréal as perhaps the team’s trickiest home opponent so far. Though he acknowledged the Quebec side has had difficulty on the defensive side of the ball, Struber said that Wilfried Nancy’s side was one that is not straightforward to New York’s pressing-based scheme against.
“We know the style of play from Montréal and think they’re a very dangerous opponent. They have a clear style of play with good ideas in their style of play and flexibility in build-up — it’s not always easy to find the right triggers and reference moments against their build-up.”
“We know they have in Mihailovic and Kamara two players who can decide a game with individual quality and one more time it’s important that we keep key players out of a game. We have to keep Mihailovic from playing soccer and when we do that we’ve stopped their key.”
Djordje Mihailovic has earned plaudits across the league for his performances in the season’s early weeks for Montréal, with many calling for the Illinois-bred playmaker to be vetted for the national team ahead of the World Cup this fall. Fitting a similar role in New York is Lewis Morgan, both in bursting into the spotlight with top performances (including a league player of the week nod after a hat trick in Toronto) as well as aiming for a potential World Cup spot with Scotland’s potentially Qatar-bound side.
Despite his explosive goalscoring performance the last time the Red Bulls faced a Canadian side, Morgan has played mostly in a right-sided wingback role in Struber’s 3/5-man defensive line. While Morgan admitted this was not his preferred role, he expressed a professional understanding of why he’s played there.
“I think everyone knows where I want to play (laughs) but it’s important to be flexible. The manager has reasons every single game as to why and where I’m selected and I’m always going to give my best for the team. We’ve obviously gotten off to a good start through that.”
“The home games are maybe a little less expansive for us given how many teams prefer to sit deeper and have us break them down. But I think against Minnesota and Columbus we did create chances, it’s just about putting the ball in the back of the net.”
Morgan’s enthusiasm about the team’s tactics appears to be a microcosm of a locker room that has fully bought into Gerhard Struber’s approach after a season of transition in 2021 that saw many of the final remaining pieces from the Jesse Marsch and Chris Armas eras replaced. Struber expressed satisfaction in his young team’s progress — progress he hopes the team can help confirm with their first home victory on Saturday.
“I think the whole process in the last season is going more and more in the direction that we want. I think everybody knows the situation last season with so many new players and showing them a completely different game idea from what they did in the past.”
“This was the main thing, to get every single player on the same page and go step-by-step with this process. Now we have a whole group together and we are much further in the process — everybody knows we are on a different level now.”