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A Couple Or Three Things: tactical test from Toronto

Strikerless Red Bulls grind their way to result over Canadians

MLS: Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls
Tom Barlow might not be your cup of tea, but he isn’t for opposing defenses either.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After the New York Red Bulls eased past Toronto FC 2-0 last night despite a rash of injuries and suspensions, Once A Metro editor Ben Cork offers a couple or three things to think about after perhaps the team’s most complete performance of 2022.

The team needs a striker up top, and sometimes that striker is Tom Barlow

In what Gerhard Struber described as a “special situation” given the suspension of Patryk Klimala, the continued fitness struggles of Ashley Fletcher, and the birth of Tom Barlow’s twins, he rolled out a Luciano Spalletti-at-Roma style striker-less formation in the first half against Toronto. Though Omir Fernandez was nominally listed as the lead forward, wingers Luquinhas and especially Lewis Morgan also frequently found themselves running ahead of play and receiving entry balls.

But as Struber said post-match, an inability to bring significant against-ball pressure to Toronto’s center backs and failure to convert frequent transitions into chances and goals meant he needed to turn to the man who this site has long predicted would become a favorite of his. Fully in character despite missing training on paternity leave, Tom Barlow’s first ten minutes after entering at the halftime break featured a talking-to from referee Ramy Touchan following a zealous aerial challenge and visceral chase-down of the Cristian Cásseres through ball that led to the spectacular Luquinhas goal.

Fans who expect a bench striker on a low-wage contract to look like Benzema will likely never give Barlow his due. But the Missourian target man’s athleticism and energy on both sides of the ball are a perfect fit for a Struber system where the central strikers often play inside-out and initiate attacks rather than finish them. Struber has displayed a particular fondness for using Barlow’s fresh legs late in games as a weapon on the ground and in the air against tired defenses, where he becomes a second-ball creation machine and can even carry counter-attacks on occasion. It’s beyond time that fans recognize Barlow (who cost the club nothing as a late round draft pick) as a triumph in bottom-of-roster development rather than a piñata.

The new Kaku has goals in his game, too

As framed by the great Gustavo Guimaraes of Portuguese-language site Territorio MLS last night, there’s a new Kaku in town. Much like when the Paraguay international arrived on the scene in 2018, sparking a New York attack that eventually won the Supporters Shield, there’s been an air of divine grace around the team’s latest South American attacking midfield signing, Lucas Lima Linhares.

Saturday was yet another exhibition of the Brazilian’s talents, marking the second straight home game in which he pounced on a loose clearance to steer a spectacular shot into the net for a 2-0 lead. While Luquinhas is yet to display Kaku’s vision for crosses and through balls, his direct dribbling and eye for goal have been godsends for the current New York team, one that appeared to be missing such an X-factor in attack during the latter parts of 2021.

Physical game makes for perfect preparation ahead of derby match

Though Toronto is no longer a direct rival of the Red Bulls ever since both clubs waned from their peaks several years ago, Saturday night’s match was a chippy and emotional one. Ramy Touchan handed out 5 yellow cards on the night and could’ve reasonably given more had he been feeling less charitable. The game featured frequent rough tackles and headbutt-baiting arguments, with the biggest flashpoint coming midway through the second half when Toronto veterans Carlos Salcedo and Michael Bradley crowded Gerhard Struber’s technical area after the Austrian manager shouted for a card on Salcedo.

It could turn out crucial for the Red Bulls to get a taste of the edge that will likely manifest again in Wednesday night’s derby match against New York City FC in the Open Cup quarterfinals. New York leads the league with 261 fouls (40 whistles ahead of second-place LAFC) and relishes physical games that encourage players to play to their personal border as Gerhard Struber would say. If Wednesday night turns into a mosh pit, the Red Bulls should be better than most teams at navigating it.