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Seattle Sounders vs. New York Red Bulls: Three Questions

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It cannot be stressed enough. The Red Bull way rules in Harrison.

New York Red Bulls v Seattle Sounders
We’ve come a long way since March 19th, 2009.
Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images

It all returns Sunday (4 PM, FS1). There will be festivities and wonderment at the raising of an MLS Cup banner. We will again stand with our friends. The Seattle Sounders season returns in full with a home game against the New York Red Bulls, who are still searching for their Cup. This match is between two different organizational philosophies. For the Sounders that’s about love of place and the people who love it. For Red Bull it is a global empire that uses a singular foundation to succeed in soccer where ever they compete.

Once a Metro’s Austin answers Three Questions.

SaH: We've been reading up on RalfBall. How does the current formation change who presses and when?

OaM: If you've been reading up, you'll know OaM's Huan Nguyen is the man to talk to about tactics, but I'll give my own simplistic grasp of where RBNY is at with RalfBall this year.

The basic premise of the 4-2-2-2 - and, crucially, the right players within it - is that it is a more flexible formation than the 4-2-3-1 the Red Bulls have relied on for the past couple of seasons (and the latter part of 2014: Jesse Marsch basically inherited a squad that knew what it had to do in that formation, and he seems to have used it as a sort of RalfBall starter pack - to gradually introduce the new system to the senior players). The 4-2-3-1 isn't gone by any means. We have seen it pop up in both RBNY's games so far this season, but that is sort of the point: "sophistication" is the way Marsch sold the 4-2-2-2 back in 2016 when he first tried it, and the notion is the Red Bulls are a more flexible and dynamic team if they are can morph easily from one shape to the next.

The most obvious feature of the 4-2-2-2 - at least the way RBNY plays it - is that it makes the front four play a lot narrower: For example, Sacha Kljestan is nobody's idea of a winger, and he only plays wide right in the formation because that's how it gets laid out on tactics boards. His job is to cut inside more often than not, and he's more or less still playing as a CAM, at least in terms of the heat map he leaves behind after the game. Width comes from the full-backs, who push up relentlessly - and that leaves the CBs and CMs with a lot of work to do to cover space and keep the ball from escaping the narrow box the Red Bulls want to play in. It's an even higher risk version of the standard RBNY approach since 2015 - and that standard approach was vulnerable to counter-attacks at the best of times. So far this year, RBNY has been punished for its mistakes by Vancouver in CCL and maximized its opportunities in its two MLS games to date.

There is a change to the pressing scheme, but it seems to be more philosophical than tactical. RalfBall is a pretty rigid philosophy, but it would appear part of that rigidity is an insistence on constant tactical tweaks and shifts: it's "never settle" with cleats. And it does seem individual coaches have a lot of leeway to find their own style within the overall system. For example, the 4-2-2-2 is arguably RogerBall more than RalfBall, since Roger Schmidt made it and himself famous in his Salzburg days. The latest innovation might be RalphBall: Leipzig head coach Ralph Hasenhuttl has said he coaches the team to be adaptable to each and every opponent. With the exception of Bayern, Bundesliga is a very competitive, any-given-Sunday sort of league and Hassenhuttl's approach is pragmatic: his Leipzig plays to win the game it's in, rather than assuming it can always impose itself on the opposition. The result is a more selective press, a slight throttling back on the "90 minutes, full power" approach - as Daniel Royer likes to call the Red Bull system.

As much as fresh ideas about how to implement the 4-2-2-2, that seems to be what Jesse Marsch brought back from an off-season spent shuttling over to Europe so often it gave rise to the rumor he was leaving RBNY. He's consciously following the Leipzig model for surviving and thriving in a closely-matched league - and that means occasionally relaxing the press and being more selective about when to go "full power" and when to hold off. I think that is the biggest adjustment this year, more than specific changes to the pressing triggers or schemes.

There's seems to be a line of thinking in RB Global Soccer at the moment that fitness and technique can all more or less be coached to the same level. The next frontier is intelligence. The smartest players will win most games because the other attributes can be developed equally well by competent coaches. I think, in his own way, that's what Marsch is hoping for when he talks about sophistication - he wants RBNY to be the smartest team on the field every week in MLS.

SaH: Are Red Bull in middle of a rebuild? The talent lost and youngsters added might be an indication towards a down year.

OaM: I think it can be said the team is rebuilding this year, but that is a choice and not a necessity - so I also don't think it can be used as an excuse for a down year. RBNY chose to offload Dax McCarty, who wasn't really showing signs of terminal decline. It chose to jettison all but one center back at the start of the off-season (though it subsequently brought two back: Aurelien Collin and Damien Perrinelle; also, we know it was trying to land Ronald Zubar but couldn't get a deal done). And it chose to promote Aaron Long from USL and Sean Davis from the bench.

So yes, it's a rebuild. But a hurricane didn't tear the roof off, RBNY decided it wanted a new roof. It has only itself to blame if the rain gets in.

SaH: Can BWP or Sacha get to 20 again?

OaM: I would think they can, since neither looks to have lost a great deal over the course of the last year. And their success has not been built on exceptional physical qualities that will decline rapidly with age. I'd rate BWP as the most intelligent attacking player in MLS. Sacha is in the conversation for second-smartest. At some point, their brains will no longer be enough to get them past younger, fitter opponents, but I don't think they're near that point yet. And they aren't any less smart this year than last, so sure they can get another 20 each.

I'm not sure that they will, however, because I'm not sure the current system will allow it.

RBNY will rely as much on set pieces as it ever has, so Sacha will get a steady stream of corners and free kicks from which to conjure goals. But if the team plays 4-2-2-2 more often this year, he'll get of fewer of the situations in which he thrived in the 4-2-3-1. He's not at his best in tight spaces, and that's where the 4-2-2-2 lands him more often than not. He just won't see as many opportunities with the ball at his feet, space around him, and runners up front to choose from. And if he is a guy who can beat man on the dribble and make his own space, he's mostly kept that to himself in his time at RBNY to date.

Similarly, BWP plays less as the tip of the spear in the newer formation than the old. Ironically, perhaps, he is even more involved in the game in the 4-2-2-2 and he'll probably get more touches, but I think it will reduce the number of goals he scores - because more of those touches will be in back-to-goal situations, or too deep to be a threat to score.

The plan for RBNY this season is to score more and win more, but I think it is hoped that will be achieved by having a more varied attack. If the team scores more in total than it did in 2015 or 2016 but has no player with double-digit goals or assists, I'm guessing Jesse Marsch will say that's exactly as intended - as long as there is another trophy in the cabinet. If he's perceived as having stifled the league's best assist-man since Valderrama and the most consistent scorer in MLS history for no obvious gain, there will be some difficult questions to answer.

Of course, BWP's entire career in MLS has been spent proving naysayers wrong. And if you told me Sacha would be the foremost play-maker in the league back at the start of 2015 when he was stumbling around up the field looking like a poor man's Jermaine Jones, I'd have advised you seek medication for your condition. It's early days in the season, and betting against BWP and Kljestan has been proven to be a mug's game. But I'm not seeing either having statistically as good a year in 2017 as in the past, though that doesn't mean they can't be just as happy with their work and the team's achievements at the end of the season.

Projected Lineup: Luis Robles; Kemar Lawrence, Aurelien Collin, Aaron Long, Sal Zizzo; Sean Davis, Felipe; Daniel Royer, Sacha Kljestan; Fredrik Gulbrandsen, Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Prediction since you asked: Seattle 2-0 RBNY - the Red Bulls' unbeaten streak in the league stops short of a record against an opponent who won't be as generous as the last two in allowing Jesse Marsch to cycle through all his tactical options until one works. The Sounders will have the crowd behind them and a point to prove, and the game will be out of reach before RBNY figures its way into it.


OaM: Slow start to 2017 in Seattle, but any real cause for concern based on what you've seen these last two weeks? What are the Sounders trying to be this year, and how close to that do you think they will be on Sunday?

SaH: There's not much to be too worried about, aside from the penchant for falling behind. Last week's scoreline was a little deceiving in that the goals were more the product of momentary lapses than any kind of structural issues and the offense has looked very potent for the past 135 minutes or so. This is a team that wants to play fast and pretty and will likely look closer to that at Sunday than they have on the road.

Schmetzer is clearly aggressive. He desires for a game with rapid transitions, flow and trust in a defensive pentagon (K, CBs, DMs) that supports the fullbacks getting into the attack with three of the best offensive options in the league. It's a fun structure, but obviously can break down. There will be an intermittent high-press used when Lodeiro thinks that the defense needs to reset. He and the non-Dempsey attacking options will then chase while Dempsey drops deep to provide defensive support.

This is not the grind it out team that won MLS Cup. That team didn't have Clint Dempsey. This team does. It's taking a bit to get on the same page, but the expectation is that they set themselves up in an attempt to repeat.

OaM: Is it a big deal that Roman Torres won't be playing this game?

SaH: Torres is a bit of a wild card lately. He gets forward nearly as much as the defensive midfielders, makes a few defensive mistakes and hasn't seemed himself. It may be good for him to sit. Still, he's a good centerback in general. This may give him a necessary reset/reboot.

Replacing him is impossible. Torres is a difference maker. Seattle will have to deal with starting Swedish CDM/CB/RB Gustav Svensson or NCAA D-II product Tony Alfaro instead. That's a large fall in talent. Both of Roman's replacements might be better passers than he is. If there's a game where the Sounders need strong passing from the defense, it's this one.

OaM: What's it like to win MLS Cup? - asking for a friend.

SaH: I don't know how it is for other people. I know how it is for me. It's wonderful. I cannot stop writing dumb poetry and hype pieces about it. The team continues to find ways to have the Cup at various events. Mix-a-Lot brought it on stage at the Men in Blazers event. It's been to Olympia, on a ferry, to a Seahawks game, corporate events, parties, bars, whatever.

Plus, we get a star on everything. Men's kits, women's kits, kids' kits - it doesn't matter. Everyone gets a star, if they want it. We want it.

It happened with great people too. Brian Schmetzer lives and breathes the Seattle Sounders. It's been true his entire life. He is genuinely good. He cares for people, whether they are fans, media, players, fellow coaches. He showers praise, handshakes and hugs on others while he tries to convince us all that he had nothing to do with winning it all. But he did (not to say that many others didn't contribute). Schmetz did it for his hometown. Every day he is trying to build that loyalty throughout the organization. Some teams have a cultural built around tactics, others around their academy, a few look to their history for their culture. Brian Schmetzer is making the Sounders culture be built around us, blue skies, green seas, a 14,000 foot snow capped volcano and the cities nestled around Puget Sound. It comes off a bit provincial, but being people of the Puget Sound is what makes a Sounder.

Predicted Sounders starting XI: 4-2-3-1

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

Predicted score: 3-nil, I'm a fan of the symmetry of this one. No other season opener will be as loud or vibrant as this match. The raising of the banner, the carrying of MLS Cup in the March to the Match by former captain Brad Evans, the 30-foot replica MLS Cup in the South Concourse, all of that. Plus, there's talent ready to explode. Jordan Morris should have goals already. Clint and Nico round out the three-headed leviathan. That's a strong attack. Seattle's defense has been decent so far. It's time to win again.