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Red Bulls Matchday Preview: Philadelphia Union

With first place on the line in Chester, we break down what to expect

MLS: Playoffs- Round One-New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union
The Red Bulls and Union have gotten to know each other well in recent years.
Mitchell Leff-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no rest for the wicked as the Red Bulls return to MLS action against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday, three days after the blowout win against DC United in the Open Cup, and three days before a matchup against the Chicago Fire. Cristian Casseres Jr. had the right idea, having earned suspensions against Hartford Athletic and the Portland Timbers he was able to enjoy a week off and skip the hectic week. The not-as-young-as-you-might-think Venezuelan knows that the hamster wheel of life does not stop spinning, that the relentless train of productivity and labor does not have brakes. My father taught me this lesson as a younger, more naive version of myself asked him why he watched movies on his second monitor while he worked from home. As I admired the pop-up advertisements plagued the hopefully legal website of my dad’s choosing, he explained to me that life was short and the workday was long, and that this movie was not for kids and I should get out of the room. Somewhere along the line this anecdote lost its meaning, just like how the geographical proximity of the Philadelphia Union and the New York Red Bulls have not prevented the “rivalry” from losing its meaning. Here’s some tactics, and maybe some better segues.

Tactics Board

The Red Bulls welcome their distant neighbors as the Philadelphia Union come to Harrison, a familiar foe that Red Bulls fans will know all too well. New York has played Philadelphia 37 times in all competitions since the latter joined MLS in 2010, with the overall series tied at 15 wins for each club. Recent encounters have left a bitter taste in New York’s mouth, having been tragically eliminated front the playoffs by the Union thanks to a late, late Jakob Glesnes goal. The Red Bulls went 0-2-1 against Philadelphia in their other three matches in 2021, head coach Jim Curtin having an answer for Struber’s every move. While matches have not had the intensity or roughness that “real” rivalries have, recent heartbreak and pent-up frustration will certainly provide some animosity on the Red Bulls end.

The Union have quickly become a dominant force in the Eastern Conference, careful planning of a now elite youth academy and the timely appointment of Jim Curtin have propelled the Pennslyvania side to the upper echelons of MLS. Curtin boasts a 38.6% win rate in his time at his hometown club, higher than the organization’s two prior head coaches. His seamless integration of academy graduates into his organized, high pressure system has cemented the club as consistent Supporters’ Shield candidates, with players like Brenden Aaronson being prime examples of his legacy. The organization has a clear path from talented pre-teen to full fledged professional, the pipeline from the world class youth academy, to the reserve team, and then the first team is a commonly traversed one. 7 Homegrown players are currently on the roster, and Curtin gave nearly 3000 minutes to Homegrowns in 2021. The Union are committed to being self sufficient, and Curtin’s effective tactical setup brings the best out of his team.

One of the advantages of youth is energy, and Jim Curtin takes full advantage of this with his high-pressing system. The Union have constantly been in the top tier of pressing numbers since Curtin’s arrival, and are currently second only to the Red Bulls in pressures per game. The organization has fully hopped onto the gegenpress train and doesn’t look like its letting go. They’ll close teams down quickly and recover possession as quickly as possible, and then fly in transition the other way. One of the things that has made the Union approach so successful has been the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield that Curtin opts for. The diamond midfield uses a lone defensive midfielder, two more advanced wide midfielders that flank on either side, and a lone attacking midfielder operating as a classic 10. The wide midfielders are the key to the transition game, as they help defensively but are also instructed to burst forward when given the chance. This season it has been young German-American Leon Flach on the left, and veteran Alejandro Bedoya on the right. The tireless duo do their defensive duties, pressuring opposing midfielders and trying to break up play, and when possession is recovered they drive forward with purpose, and as their respective fullback comes up with them it creates an overload on the wings that’s difficult to deal with.

Philadelphia are a very good team with a very good coach that currently lead the Supporter’s Shield race, and despite bursting out of the gates 5-1-0 in their opening 6 MLS games, the team has slumped slightly as they’ve been winless since, going 0-3-1 as well as an Open Cup loss to Orlando City. Expected Goals and the eye test says they’ve just been unlucky and are not to worry in the long term, however the psychological impact that a 5 game winless streak has is not to be underestimated, especially after their latest MLS match was nearly won before a late LAFC goal crushed their hopes. Not only are players burdened with the fact that they seemingly haven’t played well, but an overexuberance to attack and break the curse can lead to a lack of focus, and further frustration when results don’t go their way. Saturday’s clash will be a fight between two mirror images, as both incredibly similar styles will come in contact. Neither the Red Bulls or the Union particularly want the ball, the sides averaging 43.9% and 38.5% possession respectively this season. Both want to win the ball back and play in transition, so it’ll be a test of which coach can force the other’s hand.

Kit Contemplations

Philadelphia should roll out their new “For U” primary kits against the Red Bulls, the name reminiscent of a debut single from an early 2000s boy band that ultimately turned out to be a one-hit wonder. The music industry may be harsh but the kit is not, the dark blue shirt with gold accents reflects the club colors and creates a clean, smooth look. However here at OaM we’re not content with pretty colors, something more is needed, an element of surprise or an ounce of creativity. Adidas has pulled out all the stops with a bold single stripe on the left side of the kit, a daring “Signal Blue” that is supposed to reflect Philadelphia’s flag. The monochrome color coordination between the bright blue stripe and the dark blue shirt wouldn’t work without the well placed gold lining around the stripe, matching the collar accents and the shirt sponsor to create an aesthetically pleasing blend. Overall the kit is well made, not too complex but unique enough to stand out and be memorable.

A comfortable 7/10 for one of Adidas’ bolder attempts.

Predicted Lineups

Players to Watch

Jakob Glesnes

Take a moment to tremble, the sharpshooting Norwegian center back is returning to plague Coronel’s net. Glesnes played heartbreaker for New York in 2021, an intense and dramatic playoff opener that had the Red Bulls on the cusp of escaping to a penalty shootout was ended by his ridiculous goal in the 123rd minute. The half-volley wasn’t even the best goal Glesnes has scored that season, an absolute rocket that equalized a game against Atlanta United taking that honor, and a casual 40-yard free kick against LAFC in 2020 further padding his resume. Aside from goalscoring, Glesnes does some defending on the side, a physical player that can handle the toughest of strikers.

But his real strengths lie in possession, his passing numbers put him in the top 25% of most relevant statistics, and he averaged nearly 1 carry into the attacking third per game in 2021. Against the Red Bulls pressure Philadelphia will be glad to have the Norwegian on hand, he is able to play under pressure and connect passes with ease, and is also capable of breaking lines himself and driving forward to play in a teammate or rip a shot from distance himself. He’s exactly the type of player one needs in the back when playing against the Red Bulls, good on the ball, and his effectiveness will play a large part in keeping the Union out of trouble in the back.

Aaron Long

From one center back to another, Aaron Long might not have the goalscoring prowess of Glesnes (though one would be fooled by his clinical finish against Portland), but he’s been one of the standouts in the Red Bulls defense. The Californian has picked up right where he left off after recovering from the Achilles injury that kept him out last season. Somehow only 29, the natural leader has captained the best defense in the league and made sure they’ve been organized and effective.

Despite succeeding for a long (pun intended) time with the Red Bulls, his national team hopes have varied throughout his career. He was a regular before his injury, but since returning the rise of several younger, European based center backs have been threats to his playing time and his spot on an eventual World Cup roster. Walker Zimmerman of Nashville and Miles Robinson of Atlanta have been the de facto starters for the US XI, but just last week Robinson was badly injured, coincidentally hurting the same Achilles tendon that kept Long out. Robinson will most likely be out for the World Cup, and the discourse on who should replace him has exploded. Names like Mark McKenzie, Chris Richards, and even Cameron Carter-Vickers have been thrown into the pool. Long will not be pleased that these younger, inexperienced, and arguably lower quality options are being thought of before him, so every MLS match from now until Qatar will have the added bonus of being an opportunity to prove himself to Gregg Berhalter. A minor injury suffered in the Open Cup may rule him out from starting against Philadelphia, but Long will be certainly be looking in the long (pun intended, again) term.

Dylan Nealis

The younger of the Neali has not enjoyed himself recently, as on-loan Tom Edwards came fully into the fold the Englishman convincingly replaced him as the starting right back, and Nealis has been reduced to small substitute appearances since. For now he is the obvious backup, and a starter at wingback when Struber opts to play 5 in the back, but competition always looms. Nealis can look to 2023 to establish himself as a starter as Edwards will presumably return to his parent club, but he needs to play well now and be given chances in order to stay on the roster. With Edwards ruled out of the Open Cup tie due to a hamstring problem, he’s unlikely to be fit enough to start against the Union, creating a brief window of opportunity for Nealis to show what he can do. He’s been strong defensively and has played well when called upon, but offensive output will be required if he’s to partner John Tolkin as a two-way fullback.

Daniel Gazdag

The Hungarian playmaker has been the main man for Philadelphia in 2022, leading the squad in goals, shots, and shots on target. He operates as a classic number 10 at the tip of the diamond-shaped midfield four, receiving the ball constantly and looking to create chaos. He’s a composed finisher and technically gifted, and is capable of moments of magic. Gazdag had a difficult first year at Philadelphia in 2021, but he’s already eclipsed his goalscoring total from last year and is looking like the dominant force he was in the Hungarian league. If there’s anyone on the field that can provide the X-factor to push either side to a win on Saturday, Gazdag is certainly one of them.

Prediction

The current Supporters’ Shield leaders are not the club the Red Bulls fans will want to see in a phase of the season where the squad still has many things to figure out, but consider me an optimist as I see a statement 0-0 draw in the crystal ball.