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A Couple Or Three Things: was Cristian Cásseres the real hero against Miami?

Gerhard Struber keeps tinkering but last night it worked

MLS: Inter Miami CF at New York Red Bulls
Despite not getting on the scoresheet, Cristian Cásseres was in many ways the engine for the Red Bulls last night.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After a 3-1 win over hapless Inter Miami, the New York Red Bulls seem to have turned the corner on a brutal summer slump. OaM editor Ben Cork offers up a couple or three things about what last night’s result told us about the team and its potential to make home form more consistent.

Cristian Cásseres is soccer

It’s been a strange career in New York for Cristian Sleiker Cásseres Yepes — better known as Cristian Junior.

The Venezuelan international is still only 22 years old but has played through four managerial regimes of varying success and been deployed in numerous different tactical roles. Developed in his youth as a forward by his pro striker father and namesake, Cásseres would emerge with Venezuela youth teams as a ball-playing anchor midfielder before showing up everywhere in between as New York’s renaissance man.

2022 has been no different as Gerhard Struber has used him in wide attacking roles in the early months before dropping Cásseres deeper into a 6 role over the summer before moving him back upfield into more of a 10 role in recent weeks in the hopes of recharging the attack. Against Miami Cásseres lined up nominally as a right-sided winger in Struber’s novel 3-4-3 arrangement, but over the course of the game he often drifted centrally to be a key target and pivot in the final third when Kyle Duncan frequently pushed high up the field.

The role put Cásseres and his ungainly but effective skillset on display. In the ninth minute, Cásseres tangled with six different Miami defenders and at one point fell on his ass inside the penalty area, but continued chugging and eventually got a shot off. Later in the half he ran off the shoulder of Miami defender Christopher McVey and outmuscled him to collect the ball and feed Patryk Klimala for a goal that was unfortunately called offside. The stocky, wide-gaited Casseres is often less-than-smooth on the ball, but his ability to find solutions to a variety of situations allowed New York to keep attacks alive as well as maintain their bite in preventing counter-attacks.

Cásseres has been a survivor in New York because he offers a little something that every manager can like. While his coaches have not yet found him a consistent tactical groove and his decision-making can still be erratic, his maximalist skills in tackling, shooting, and general work rate give him a much higher floor than other players at a variety of positions. It may not always look pretty but Cásseres is soccer in a nutshell, always finding a way to assist every phase of play in a sport and league where gumption in chaotic moments often decides games.

Red Bulls beat their tactical kryptonite for once

In an interesting aside last year, Gerhard Struber stated that playing against 10 men could be something of a disadvantage for his team. Struber remarked that the team with the extra man can often over-elaborate their attacking approach, and the short-handed opponent typically resorts to simplistic but cohesive bunkering tactics. In many ways this serves as a microcosm of New York’s struggles this season at home, where even teams with a full 11 are frequently content to sit back and play for a draw.

Last night against Miami, the Red Bulls were able to navigate both issues with relative ease. As Struber remarked after the game, the ability of wide players to combine and make diagonal runs created danger as seen from Lewis Morgan’s goal, while the dogged defensive trio of Long, Nealis, and Reyes (who drew Miami’s red card through a brave step to collect an aerial ball) gave New York’s midfield freedom to engage in the final third as seen on Daniel Edelman’s go-ahead finish. After a late summer slump in which the team appeared to be stripping down to somewhat primitive basics in attack, the team showed a glimpse on Saturday night of what can be accomplished in a situation where they were forced to make their own luck through possession.

The tinkering is here to stay, but will it work?

By this point in the season it’s a massive understatement to say the Red Bulls have no true base formation. While a fluid 5-4-1 has been the most common setup used by Struber this year, there have been weeks-long stretches of 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 before Struber entered last night’s game against Inter Miami with a novel 3-4-3 approach featuring Lewis Morgan and Cristian Cásseres as pinched-in wingers. Struber frequently adjusts his own team to adjust to opposition formations, stating that the need to find reasonable pressing distances and precise pressing triggers is often the objective. While the hand Struber played last night worked against a pedestrian Miami side, there have been enough moments of tactical backfire over the course of 2022 to question whether the approach erodes his squad’s cohesion in attack and leaves them prone to disaster on defense if one domino falls.

Struber is adamant that while positions change, the system and principles do not. While this is a fair framing of his formational approach, it’s one that frequently leaves his team on a knife edge between dominance and collapse and speaks to a determinist logic that implies that adherence to rigid tactical principles is more important than basic football sense. Struber said after last week’s deflating draw with Cincinnati that the problems with his team are “not a matter of quality or talent, but of discipline” and has framed most if not all of the team’s shortcomings this year as a result of the young squad not following his rules well enough.

The beauty of soccer is that it’s a game of opinions and subjectivity, and everybody has a different approach. Some coaches are micromanagers who seek to orchestrate every moment of their team’s play and that’s fine. One would hope Struber’s tendency towards week-by-week strategizing as opposed to long-term cohesion leaves the team in good stead for a playoff situation, able to find a formula for whatever opposition they may face. But when Struber so frequently seeks to have such full ownership of how his team plays, it is his reputation that will reap the reward — or punishment — of the season’s eventual outcome.