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Red Bulls Matchday Preview: CF Montréal

Team hoping to get first win off back and move firmly into contention

MLS: New York Red Bulls at CF Montreal
Omir Fernandez battles against Montreal’s Mason Toye last season.
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Red Bull giveth and it taketh away. Supporters and players were frustrated, angered by the disappointing draw in Columbus. After the hard-fought performance was dashed by the late, late Darlington Nagbe equalizer, the game felt less like a point earned and more like two points dropped.

But the scales of fate balance eventually, a level’s bubble always ends in the center. Two points were unjustly dropped against Columbus, and so two points were unjustly earned against New England. Maybe Ashley Fletcher was partially to blame for the Columbus equalizer, but against the Revolution the elusively sized Englishman was partially to be credited for the winner. Frankie Amaya had been in superhuman form the first weeks of the season, so naturally he showed a human side as his controversial red card nearly cost the side the game. Even Golden Boot candidate Tom Barlow showed completeness, shedding his timid self to nearly fight an assistant referee.

Naturally in the spirit of balance and order, against CF Montreal one should expect three goals from Lewis Morgan, four goals from Tom Barlow, and five goals each from Patryk Klimala, Omir Fernandez, and Aaron Long, creating a five-way Red Bull tie for Golden Boot, the award confirmed after every MLS regular season game following ends 0-0. You know, for balance.

TACTICS BOARD

The newly-named Club de Football Montréal have had a tumultuous time the last couple of years, facing the poorly-received rebrand and the resignation of promising manager Thierry Henry due to personal issues. Their MLS tenure as the Montreal Impact was mediocre, despite attracting top-tier talent like Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti, they only made the playoffs 4 times in 10 years, never going past the Conference Semifinal. Finally, things seemed to be looking up after the signing of Henry as their manager in 2019, the Frenchman of New York fame leading the Canadian side to their first playoff berth in 4 years. The numbers weren’t great, their expected goals and expected goals against implied they benefited from extreme finishing inconsistencies on both ends of the pitch, but Henry made do with the scrappy side he had and brought hope to the club. So naturally, the pandemic and other circumstances brought it to an end, with Henry jumping on a plane to his family in London, and former assistant Wilfried Nancy taking over the head coaching job.

Nancy, a former defender who traversed the lower French leagues, has spent his entire coaching career in Montreal. Beginning as a U18 coach when the Montreal Impact Academy was founded in 2011, Nancy bounced among the age groups before his promotion to assistant head coach in 2016 and the aforementioned head coaching position in 2021. The Frenchman knows the tactics and philosophy of the club intimately, and has been a fan favorite since his arrival, despite continued mediocre performances. Thanks to better roster construction, as well as more promising underlying numbers, the well-liked Nancy turned the club around in 2021.

Montreal’s most important player is Djordje Mihailovic, and while he won’t make the esteemed Once A Metro Player to Watch list, the Chicago Fire homegrown is certainly one fans from both teams will be watching regardless. Mihailovic seems to have been around forever, he showed great promise since his Chicago academy days, and when promoted to the first team he seemed set for a great club and international career. However longtime issues at the Fire, injuries, and bad luck prevented him from truly realizing himself in Illinois. The talent was there, but he simply couldn’t show them.

However, Nancy saw something in Mihailovic and acquired him in the biggest trade of 2021. The American repaid him dutifully, providing the second-most assists in the league despite being on a mid-table side. Playing as a hybrid 8 and 10 in Nancy’s fluid 3-4-1-2, his creative abilities were put to good use. Everything went through Mihailovic, he lead the team in minutes played and Shot Creating Actions, had the third most touches on the team, and the fifth most passes on the team (In the latter two categories he was only beat out by center-backs and Victor Wanyama). This trade, along with the Mason Toye gamble paying off, and moves for key players like Sunusi Ibrahim, Joaquin Torres, and Aljaž Struna, pushed CF Montreal to still miss out on a playoff spot, but show more promise than they had for years.

Nancy lined Montreal up in a 3-4-1-2, the formation brought to the club by Henry. His tactics place emphasis on attacking freedom and danger in transition moments. Nancy would allow opponents to come onto them, allowing them to press initially before passing their way out and counterattacking through Mihailovic. Montreal completed the most passes under pressure in the league in 2021, they played with fire consistently but had the midfield quality to get out of tight spots, and take advantage of the open spaces left behind in the process. The niche system worked for a while, however defensive inconsistencies left them with 2 wins in their final 9 games, a run that ultimately doomed their playoff chase. They scored 46 and conceded 44, and the two unspectacular totals combined for an unspectacular team.

However despite it still being early in the 2022 season, CF Montreal’s start to the year has not impressed. Currently sitting second to last in the Eastern Conference, the 1-1-3 record has left many wondering what happened to the decently promising Canadian side of last year. Their goalscoring has been alright, scoring 9 times, however the real shocker has been their defense. They’re tied for the most goals conceded in the league with 14 goals, allowing 3+ in their last three games. Only twice last season did they let in more than three in a game, it’s unclear what’s happening but something has changed, even from the mediocrity of last campaign. Individual mistakes have plagued Montreal in 2022, in their 4-1 loss to NYCFC 3 of the goals were directly caused by simple giveaways in possession. Nancy will certainly be emphasizing calmness on the ball and more of the accurate passing that helped them last season, but against the Red Bull high press neither one of those is easy. The Red Bulls have faced talented creators in the early days of the season, Emmanuel Reynoso, Lucas Zelarayan, and Carles Gil being restricted effectively in their respective matches. With so much of the Montreal offense running singularly through Djordje Mihailovic, and the nervousness in possession that has appeared so far, the French Canadians are exactly the type of team the Red Bulls want to face in their battle for a first home win.

PREDICTED LINEUPS

NY Red Bulls (3-4-1-2)

CF Montreal (3-4-1-2)

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Mystery RBNY Defensive Midfielder

Frankie Amaya has been a superstar in the midfield in 2022, his “new” spot at defensive midfield has been one of the revelations of the season so far. He seems to be everywhere for the Red Bulls, snuffing out opposition chances and quickly transitioning the team into the attack. However a controversial red card against New England ruled him out for the Montreal game, creating a dilemma for Gerhard Struber.

The only natural defensive midfielder on the squad is United States youth international Daniel Edelman. The new Homegrown was a mainstay in RBII, and while he’s a very promising player for the future Struber has been reluctant to give the inexperienced teenager a chance. A game against CF Montreal, where on paper the Red Bulls are favorites, would be a good opportunity for Edelman to make his full debut, but it would be a risky choice with the impending matchup against a strong Montreal midfield.

Any other option would require some shuffling, although Struber has never been one to shy away from experimenting. Dru Yearwood has already been playing, and his underrated defensive abilities could be an asset in the new role. Christian Casseres seems to be viewed more offensively by Struber, having played as a wide midfielder and an attacking one, however having played defensive midfield for most of his career a return could be on the cards. Even Tom Edwards played there briefly last season, and wasn’t bad either. Or perhaps Struber simply changes the entire formation and system just to spite me. With the Austrian, it’s hard to predict solutions.

Victor Wanyama

The dominant Kenyan of Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur fame joined CF Montreal in 2020, and quickly made himself a key player for the struggling side. Long known as a box-to-box threat in the Premier League, Wanyama took more of a defensive role to rescue Montreal on multiple occasions in his 2 years at the club. He lead the team in tackles in 2021, coming second in 2020, and has kept the defense at a stable mediocre. However his ball progression has always been an asset for him, Wanyama was in the upper 20% of MLS midfielders in nearly every possession based statistic in 2021, being able to effectively carry the ball forward and dribble into the characteristic Montreal counterattacks. And his passing is no joke either, if one looks at the pinpoint assist he played for Djordje Mihailovic’s viral goal against Atlanta, Wanyama’s vision and technical quality are evident.

With the struggles Montreal have had in possession this season, Wanyama will be asked to be the calm, experienced head in the midfield that he’s so often been in MLS. He is a key part of Montreal being able to play out of pressure, whether it be with an accurate pass or a driving run forward. Containing Wanyama’s metronome-like role will be just as important as containing Mihailovic’s creativity, and if the Red Bulls can stifle Montreal at the source then the game will become infinitely harder for the Canadians.

Ismaël Koné

CF Montreal have not found much success in youth in recent years, but new breakout star Ismaël Koné may be a shining light for years to come. The 19 year old Canadian has seemingly come out of nowhere, making his professional debut in the CONCACAF Champions League this February, and scoring in the same match against Santos Laguna. Koné has started every MLS game for Montreal at center midfield alongside Victor Wanyama, scoring once and assisting twice. His game against Atlanta was a perfect example of his talents, scoring his side’s second goal after a powerful run into the box connected with a clever pullback cross from Lassi Lappalainen. And aside from the finish, his technical quality was highlighted with a nutmeg that got him past starting USMNT defender Miles Robinson and won Montreal a penalty.

He’s looked comfortable at the professional level, making a difference on both ends of the pitch. His performances earned him a call-up and subsequent debut for the Canadian national team this past international break, and if his development goes to plan he could be one of the league’s top players. CF Montreal’s midfield is their strength, and Koné will have to combine effectively with Mihailovic and Wanyama in order to give his side a chance.

Lewis Morgan

The Scotsman has had a mixed start to life in New York, with Gerhard Struber fully taking advantage of his versatility he’s not had a chance to settle down in a spot. Management has kept him alternating between a right wingback role and a right wing one, his defensive responsibilities correlating with the opponent’s system.

Against teams with more aggressive fullbacks, like San Jose, Columbus, and New England, Struber preferred to play Morgan at wingback. And against teams with more conservative fullbacks, like Toronto and Minnesota, Morgan was given attacking license and played as a traditional winger or attacking midfielder. Morgan has certainly not struggled at either role, keeping him in the starting XI, however his attacking output will obviously be decreased when playing wingback. In the aforementioned 3 games where Morgan played wingback, Morgan totaled 2 shots and had an average of 4.6 progressive carries per game. Whereas in his games at winger, Morgan lead the team in shots and progressive carries, totalling 5 and averaging 12 in the respective categories, not to mention his hat-trick.

While Morgan can put in the work defensively and perform, at heart he is an attacker, and for a team that’s lacked creatively for so long management may have to consider giving him free reign more often. If the pattern holds Montreal’s attacking wingbacks should keep Morgan defensive, so Morgan will either have to make use of his creativity further back or make a case for a spot up top.

PREDICTION

The Red Bulls keep Mihailovic quiet as they’ve done to playmakers all season, and CF Montreal’s issues in possession are exacerbated by the press to great effect as the Red Bulls comfortably march to a 2-0 victory in Harrison.