MLS is back, it’s time to go find the TV remote or computer mouse or phone faceID thing. Not that you haven’t been enjoying watching the USMNT beat up a nonchalant Morocco and seeing fans not know what to do about a good performance from an MLS player. But it’s ok if you secretly just looked at reactions online to form your opinions. Your secret’s safe here. As long as you read about these tactics.
They’re back! The Red Bulls face off against Charlotte FC just seventeen days after their last Open Cup encounter, a convincing 3-1 win that saw New York into the quarterfinals. However a lot can happen in 17 days, and in Charlotte’s case “a lot” turned out to be a reported dispute between a mysterious Designated Player and head coach Miguel Ángel Ramírez turning into Miguel Ángel Ramírez no longer being the head coach. Life comes at you fast.
Not many details have come out about what ultimately happened, with ownership remaining cautious with releasing details about the situation, Charlotte’s sporting director Zoran Krneta citing only a desire to “change direction.” Regardless, the expansion club faces the unique challenge of gelling as a team and an organization at the same time it gels into new interim manager Christian Lattanzio’s new system. However it may prove to be a blessing in disguise, despite showing promise under their former coach tactically the team seemed to have many issues, as ever-humble expert reporters will tell you the side often relied too much on wide play to really break down teams. The expansive 4-4-2 allowed for lots of interplay between central midfielders, wide midfielders, and fullbacks, but provided little support for strikers that were often left isolated in the box, or any central midfielder wishing to play through the middle. Christian Lattanzio is a complete mystery box, as the former technical coach at Charlotte has never held a head coaching position in his career. He’s by no means inexperienced, the 50 year old Italian has spent times as an assistant at OGC Nice in France and NYCFC, but at the top level he remains untested.
Interim coaches are rarely there to radicalize clubs, they seek to stabilize sinking ships and patch up any immediate problems before handing the reins off to the flashy new foreign coach. Unless you’re Ole Gunnar Solskjær, but that didn’t really work out anyways. Lattanzio will likely seek to work with what he’s got, keeping the same ideas that Ramirez drilled into the side with some wrinkles that he believes will fix the most important issues. Predicting these wrinkles, however, is difficult, and it’ll largely be a coaching battle as Struber attempts to counter Lattanzio’s setup without the benefit of prior scouting.
Perhaps Lattanzio chooses to give specific instructions to his central midfielders, allowing them more positional freedom with the hopes they can find space in between lines and create more central attacks. Perhaps Lattanzio switches up the formation somehow, sacrificing a striker and flooding the midfield in an attempt to encourage more buildup. Maybe he’s feeling more adventurous and sacrifices a defender instead, opting for 3 in the back to still flood the midfield but retain danger up top. Or maybe he tells his players that anyone that leaves the middle third of the field with the ball at their feet has to do 5 laps around the pitch after the game, prompting an immediate dismissal from the club and a peaceful retirement in USL. We really don’t know. But we can guess. And isn’t that the beauty of sport?
Charlotte FC (4-2-3-1)
New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Besides having one of the best names in the league, and some of the best hair in the league, Ben Bender is also a pretty decent soccer player. The first overall pick in the 2022 SuperDraft has shown himself well in his debut professional season, 2 goals and 3 assists in 14 games, a team-second 30 Shot Creating Actions, the creatively gifted box-to-box midfielder has slotted right into the high-energy, progressive dribbling inclined system played at Charlotte. While Lattanzio is sure to change some things up tactically, 21-year old Bender is exactly the type of player one wants to build a team around. He’s gifted on the ball, able to drive forward with purpose before picking out a pass, and always has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. But honestly, his best trait is his hair. Long flowing locks reminiscent of an Andrea Pirlo, or the Hemsworth siblings. His ability to glide past defenders before putting in a cross is surely aided by said defenders being distracted by his beautiful blonde curls, mesmerized at how it consistently stays perfectly inside his headband. I wish I was his barber.
Sean & Dylan Nealis (Neali)
It’s a unique quirk of MLS that international windows sometimes overlap with the regular season, with the league sometimes seeming to exist outside of the realms of the rest of soccer. Teams face the challenge of being depleted by international rosters, and the Red Bulls will have an Aaron Long-shaped hole against Charlotte. Busy being the best center back in the country, the club captain will be unable to travel to Charlotte as he will be in the middle of figuring out if the Nations League is important or not. 2021’s breakout star Sean Nealis has accompanied Long in 13 out of 14 MLS games this season, and will likely be called upon against Charlotte. With surefire future starter Matt Nocita yet to fully integrate into team, the only other healthy natural centerback on the roster is Lucas Monzon, whose 23 minutes in 2 seasons as a Red Bull do not show much promise for a start on Saturday. The elder Nealis’ partner will likely be “right back” Tom Edwards, who deputized in the role for most of 2021 and performed admirably. This leaves the right back spot open for the younger Neali, who has had moderate success as a backup at the role. Both Neali will be essential to the Red Bulls gameplan, with Sean tasked with being a leader in the back and dominating aerially against the long ball enthusiasts that Charlotte FC are, and Dylan being tasked with maintaining the offense in wide areas, potentially attacking an area of weakness in Charlotte’s error prone left back Christian Fuchs. And who doesn’t love a good brotherly duo?
As a Premier League champion with Leicester City, a lot of things were expected of Christian Fuchs. Given the captains armband, he was entrusted with being a veteran prescence in the dressing room, providing experience from both his title-winning days in Europe and his 78 caps for Austria. He’s likely done this, but on the field he’s been prone to errors and has shown his age in high-pace situations. Nonetheless he’s still a asset to the side, able to play both center-back and left back, and the club still holds faith in him, playing 13 out of Charlotte’s 14 games. In a time where the team has become so disorganized and confused after the chaos that’s ensued in the post-Ramirez era, a real leader is needed to unify the players and keep them focused on the campaign at hand. Fuchs seems to have taken that role, speaking to the media on the player’s behalf on multiple occasions, but he’ll need to set the example on the pitch as well. Lattanzio will be counting on his captain to set the tone for how Charlotte’s new era will begin, and will hope that the Austrian can turn back the years against the Red Bulls.
Cristian Cásseres Jr.
Fresh off international duty with Venezuela, Cristian Cásseres will be looking at the Charlotte match as an opportunity on multiple levels. The somehow-only-22 year old midfielder is in his fifth season as a Red Bull, his development has been clear to see as he’s worked his way from young prospect to full fledged starter. Always earmarked as one to move to Europe eventually, he made the jump in 2021 to seriously be considered for a move. Circumstance has kept him in the United States for now, but as summer creeps in and the European transfer wheel starts turning the rumors are sure to come. Cásseres has had a good campaign so far, starting 9 games and usually playing solidly in a double pivot along with Frankie Amaya. Scouts will be watching him more closely as teams abroad search for potential moves, so he’ll be relishing the opportunities that are only going to increase after Charlotte. Expect Casseres to play a substitute role against Charlotte if he makes the squad after a game against Saudi Arabia on Thursday, but look closely at him as his motivations increase in the following weeks.
Aaron Long will be sorely missed by the team, but expect little drop off as the Red Bulls slalom to a comfortable 2-0 win against the MLS newcomers.