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Scouting Report: Clipping the Red Bulls’ Wings

We discuss whether we’ll get too sticky playing a game against a team of energy drinks

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at New York Red Bulls
There is no Dax to save you now, New Jersey.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Who You’ll Watch

The MLS Champions have returned home! For the first time since they won MLS Cup on Dec. 10 against Toronto FC at BMO Field, the Seattle Sounders will step on the turf at CenturyLink Field for the first time. The Sounders are coming off of a 2-2 tie against the Montreal Impact. The New York Red Bulls come to Seattle after winning 1-0 at home against the Colorado Rapids on an own goal.

The match on Sunday takes place exactly eight years to the day that the Sounders opened up their MLS campaign against these exact same Red Bulls. We all remember it like it was yesterday, a 3-0 win for the Rave Green. Only two players remain from that first ever starting XI -- Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans.

Enough of looking back at history. Let’s take a look at what New York brings to Seattle.

Red Bulls 2016 Record: 16-9-9, first in East

Returning top scorer from 2016: Bradley Wright-Phillips, 24

Returning assist leader from 2016: Sacha Kljestan, 20

Notable Impact Roster Changes:

In: *crickets*

Out: Dax McCarty, Chris Duvall, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Karl Ouimette

What To Watch

A very good 2016 Red Bulls team stayed quiet during the offseason, save one big move in the trade away of Dax McCarty. McCarty was, without a doubt, one of the most important players for New York over his tenure there, and the move was both a huge surprise and eyebrow-raising. They seem to be entirely comfortable with HGP Sean Davis taking his box-to-box position, while super-prospect and heir-apparent HGP Tyler Adams waits in the wings for his opportunity. So far it’s working out for them; thru two games Davis leads the team in tackles and is second in interceptions, and their offense and defense have stayed well connected.

Red Bulls’ various teams around the world play similar pressing styles, and head coach Jesse Marsch understands well how to implement the mothership’s directives. His version of the system plays like a very narrow version of an empty bucket 4-4-1-1 in defense, and a 4-1-3-2 in attack, and expects contribution from the outside backs on both offense and defense to provide width.

Can the Sounders break the high press before the final third of the game? There’s a big difference between pushing hard for goals at the end of a game while down, allowing you to commit extra players forward, and balancing risk in the early- and mid-game phases. Thus far, Seattle hasn’t shown the ability to come out and impose their will on the game nearly as much as they’d like. Realio highlighted in his ratings for last week many of the decision-making and positioning issues the team is struggling with in transition and on defense (and that the culprits are surprising, normally steady, players).

When these issues have been cleaned up at half for both matches this year, it’s revealed an offense that’s raring to step on it when given the chance, though, with some occasional backfires, it still seems to need its carbs tuned a little. Alonso and Cristian Roldan need to better find their feet in connecting the defensive and offensive lines, and their effectiveness as pressure relief outlets for both sides of the equation will go a long way in this match.

We wrote a bit yesterday about how much New York presses, and it’s a little difficult to overstate how big a part of their success this pressure is. The Sounders will likely never be out-talented on the field this year in MLS, and certainly have the skill to punish Red Bulls if and when they press too hard, but the talent will need to finally combine their considerable powers on a regular basis to succeed. Against a very good Red Bulls team, all three layers will need to step up another notch in support of the offense to stay competitive. To what level the offense is able to maintain possession will go a long way in determining the degree of stress the defense will be tested to.

How will the further revised Seattle defense hold up? And can they keep Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips contained? New York isn’t full of familiar faces, but it is full of players who execute their roles well, and one each of the best playmakers and goalscorers the league has to offer. They’re going to generate quality chances, no matter the team they’re playing. Their pressure is good at creating turnovers and taking advantage of transition problems, and their quick ball movement in the final third has a tendency to highlight and exacerbate defensive issues by forcing instinctive reactions and pulling players into clumps while chasing the ball. The easiest counter to this is a smart defensive line with a high level of familiarity, and, unfortunately, with Roman Torres out due to suspension, yet another defensive backup will be called on to step in and play significant minutes.

The combination of these two issues would normally be cause for a good bit of worry. Torres has been the poorest defender in both matches; however, his moonlighting as an attacker has been a leading cause for the poor performances. While a more stay-at-home CB partner for Chad Marshall (which either Svensson or Alfaro will be hard-pressed to avoid achieving) will probably help everyone be a bit more comfortable with responsibilities, facing Kljestan feeding Wright-Phillips isn’t exactly the ideal time to be breaking in a new CB pairing. Wright-Phillips, in particular, enjoys trying to outwork CBs and turning those passes into chances for others as well (though, thankfully, the others don’t convert them at anywhere near the rate he does).

Whatever defensive line does set out, it’s going to need to be connected from the start and will certainly have its hands full for the entire match. Their ability to take care of things on their own will go a long way in determining how much attention to the offense Alonso and Roldan can provide.

Expected Lineups

Seattle: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Gustav Svensson, Chad Marshall, Oniel Fisher; Alonso, Christian Roldan; Harry Shipp, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Jordan Morris

Red Bulls: Luis Robles; Kemar Lawrence, Aaron Long, Aurelien Collin, Sal Zizzo; Felipe, Sean Davis; Daniel Royer, Sacha Kljestan; Bradley Wright-Phillips, Derrick Etienne

How to Watch

Date/Time: Sunday, March 19 at 4 PM

Venue: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA

Television: Fox Sports 1

Radio: KIRO 97.3 (English), 1360 El Rey (Spanish)

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