We’re two weeks into the season. That’s it. Two out of 34 games have been played.
It is so early, and so many opportunities still lay ahead. The next one starts at 12 p.m. CT this Saturday in Harrison, NJ, against a Red Bulls side that has yet to earn a point in 2021.
Here’s what the matchup will look like against a group under new guidance in Austrian manager Gerhard Struber.
WHO ARE THEY, REALLY?
Anyone who pays attention to Major League Soccer knows what the Red Bulls’ style entails. It’s pressure, it’s fast, and it’s physically demanding. They want to win the ball as far up the field as possible, then turn that relentless defensive presence into ruthless counter-attacking football.
However, the Red Bulls are still trying to figure out exactly what their secondary identity (if you will) is under Struber who is in his first full season as the club’s head coach.
We saw RBNY lineup in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Sporting Kansas City in Week 1, a match in which they fell 2-1 after scoring the opening goal. SKC utilized some tidy passing out of the initial pressure, and went forward with numbers out wide. This was a fixture that didn’t feature many clear-cut chances, but SKC made the most of their opportunities and were disciplined in not giving the ball away too often.
Last week against the LA Galaxy, the Red Bulls rolled out a 3-5-2 before getting flat-out “Chicharito-ed” in a 3-2 defeat. Amro Tarek slid in as the third centerback and Florian Valot replaced Kyle Duncan and played as a right wing-back. They got caught in possession on the Mexican star’s first of three goals, got beat by a wonderful Victor Vazquez ball over the top on his second, and were undone by a rare piece of poor defending from Aaron Long that completed the hat trick. Their issue in this game was defensive transition. The group looked uncharacteristically out of sorts when they turned the ball over, and couldn’t locate runners quick enough.
With that said, they did give LA some problems and created a lot from their press. It’s the second, third, and fourth form of pressure that ends up usually winning the ball, and Greg Vanney’s group probably should have been caught for one more goal. Daniel Royer missed a pretty clear-cut chance to equalize late, and had a great long-range effort saved by LA goalkeeper Jonathan Bond.
We know this Red Bulls group are fighters. All of them are true competitors. Fire fans will remember Brian White’s stoppage-time equalizer at Soldier Field last year after Chicago had essentially dominated the entire match.
The first two games are telling me that they are still the same Red Bulls. They create their chances up the field and give team fits, but are also struggling defensively. It seems like Struber is still trying to figure out his best XI from a personnel and tactical standpoint. You can’t help but also think the absence of Tim Parker (traded to Houston in off-season) is leaving both a literal and metaphorical hole in central defense next to Aaron Long.
One of the big reasons the Red Bulls are still attempting to figure out who they are under Struber is their personnel situation.
Defender Jason Pendant has missed the first two weeks with injury. Former Premier League defender Tom Edwards has been in quarantine after coming over from Stoke City on loan, but I think he could slide in at right full-back almost immediately. Andrew Gutman has seemingly won the starting left full-back position for the time being.
New Young Designated Player signing Patryk Klimala (a former teammate of Fire winger Przemysław Frankowski in Poland) was just officially announced last Thursday and is doubtful to be available just yet.
Another Young Designated Player, Dru Yearwood, was nursing a knock that saw him miss Week 1 against SKC, but he did appear off the bench against LA.
New Brazilian striker Fábio is still learning the system. He hasn’t yet had too many chances to score, other than a 25-yard strike that was saved by LA’s Bond last weekend.
New York still have room for one more DP on their roster, and I’d expect them to go with a more seasoned player given the fact that they already have two Young DPs.
These late arrivals and injuries make the decision for Struber a bit more complicated as to what they’ll look like tactically on Saturday. He simply hasn’t had the opportunity to see everyone in training, which is similar to what the Fire experienced at the beginning of 2020 with all of their late arrivals.
Regardless of the formation that Struber sets up in, this Red Bulls team is going to be difficult to beat. There’s a reason this club has made the postseason in 11 consecutive seasons and won three Supporter’s Shields along the way. They know how to get results.
For me, I think the 3-5-2 they set up in against LA was more effective and suited the existing personnel better. It allowed the wing backs to really roll up and create those turnovers high up the field. RBNY looked much more dangerous in attack and generated more chances, but were obviously a bit more exposed at the back. With that said, I don’t expect Long to consistently make the mistakes he made against Chicharito and the Galaxy. With each game they play in that three-back system, the more comfortable they’ll likely be.
With that said, in either system, the Fire will need to be more clinical in the middle of the field and complete a high percentage of their passes. Cheap giveaways and unforced turnovers against Red Bulls are non-negotiable. This means Álvaro Médran and Gastón Giménez will, once again, be pivotal in getting a result. I think those two would be the first to tell you that the game passed them by a bit in Atlanta. They’re due for a bounce-back performance.
Once the ball gets out wide, the composure and decision-making from the likes Boris Sekulić, Frankowski, and Chinonso Offor (or anyone who is out wide) needs to be of a premium. There will be time and space, but taking advantage of those numerical advantages once the pressure has been relieved is the key. Wearing RBNY down - and even sometimes establishing possession in their defensive third - will force them to move side-to-side. Slowing the game down, at times, could prove fruitful.
Fabió, Brian White, Caden Clark et al will put the Fire’s two centerbacks under pressure and force them to make a decision. We know Raphael Wicky will want his side to keep the ball and not pander to the pressure, but striking that balance between possession and being direct is something he’s spoken about before.
This type of game may call for the first start of the year for Mauricio Pineda given his ability to distribute out of the back and break lines with his vision and range of passing.
Both teams have struggled out of the gates in 2021, with just one point out of 12 acquired by the two teams combined.
As a result, I think both teams will go after this game and then some. Strap in, buckle up, and hold onto your hats. This is going to be a track meet in Harrison, NJ and I, literally, am here for all 90 minutes of it.
See you Saturday at noon CT on WGN, CFFC Live, and 1200 TUDN AM.