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Sounders at New York Red Bulls: Three Questions

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Seattle can rest after they battle through the RBNY press. Wednesday night’s game (5 p.m./JOEtv) is their last before 10 days off.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at New York Red Bulls
New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles (31) looks on as fans celebrate a goal against the Seattle Sounders during the first half at Red Bull Arena. 
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The time for rest is soon, but it is not now. Tonight the Seattle Sounders play one of the two MLS sides most defined by their defensive press. New York Red Bulls are young, feisty and have contenders to lead the league in both assists (Alejandro Romero Gamarra “Kaku”) and goals (Bradley Wright-Phillips). For all their fame from their press, they are only the second best defense by xGD (Seattle is 3rd according to American Soccer Analysis).

JOEtv and YouTubeTV are carrying the 5:00 PM PT match.

Austin Fido from Once a Metro answers Three Questions. The questions were exchanged Tuesday. No lineups were predicted because we would be wrong.

SaH: How has the Red Bulls press changed over the years?

OAM: I’m no scholar of tactics, so I can’t give this question the complete answer it deserves. Simplistically (which is all I’m capable of here), it’s got more sophisticated, more intense, and more selective.

There’s no evidence to suggest that Jesse Marsch was a great disciple of the Red Bulls’ playing style and philosophy before he was appointed to his current job, so part of what we have seen is simply a technical staff becoming increasingly familiar with a particular approach to the game. So a lot of what has changed is just a function of the coaching staff being more familiar with the system, and perhaps more confident about modifying its principles to better fit their own ideas about how best to play in MLS or against a specific opponent. And, of course, we’re in the fourth season of the team playing in this way — and that means that the roster is now largely comprised almost exclusively of players selected for the qualities the coaches believe are best suited to RBNY’s tactical preferences. (And the coaches have a better idea of what qualities they should be looking for in the first place.)

In 2018, that all adds up to a younger, more dynamic squad that has been coached to be more flexible with regard to formations and pressing schemes than RBNY teams of prior seasons. The press can be more intense than it used to be because there aren’t many players in this squad who haven’t in some way earned minutes by proving their ability in the system — either in training, or with the reserve team, or simply in seasons past.

The tactics have got more sophisticated too: there’s more fluidity in the formations used. Back in 2016, Marsch used the word “sophistication” largely to signal an effort to get RBNY to switch over to the 4-2-2-2 that had been favored by the Red Bull brother clubs in Salzburg and Leipzig. It’s never really convincingly worked as a long-term plan; instead, what Marsch has successfully developed is a squad that can confidently adjust on the fly — to playing two up front, or three at the back, or a flat back four — as the situation demands. Every formation adjustment brings with it adjustments to pressing schemes and the overall shape the team is striving for on the field, and Jesse arguably now has a pool of about 25 players who are more or less comfortable with the full suite of RBNY tactical variations. All variations on the same theme, of course, but we’ve come a long way from the time when the Red Bulls’ tactical options were basically “press or sit back” or “play 4-2-3-1 or try that two-up-front thing again”.

And finally it seems the team has got more selective with its pressing. I think the confidence of knowing that the players largely understand what they’re supposed to do and can turn it on when required has allowed Marsch to start varying the intensity of the press. The question that always hangs over RBNY is how long the team can sustain its highest levels of pressure, and in the past one felt that Marsch was trying to answer that question himself and sort of just trying to keep the players running as hard as possible for as long as possible. More recently, it seems the decision to slow down a bit or back off in certain situations is more considered: Marsch knows the players can find a higher gear, so he’s maybe got a little more confident about letting them slow the game down if need be — since he knows they can speed it up again.

SaH: What is about Kaku that has him on pace to beat the single-season assist record? Will he?

OAM: I’ll be deliriously surprised if he does beat the record. Twenty-seven assists in one MLS season? That’s a lot. Too many for me to say he’ll do it. Not least because I don’t expect him to play every remaining league game for RBNY; indeed, I expect he’ll miss out on playing Seattle this week, since he’s just played 20-odd minutes off the bench for Paraguay (his new national team) against Japan in Austria, and it’s asking a lot of him to fly straight back into the starting lineup at Red Bull Arena. If his form and fitness holds up, that surely means more games for Paraguay later this year, and that’ll mean a few more RBNY games missed. Plus if the Red Bulls make a deep run in US Open Cup, I’d expect they’ll shift focus to that competition for a while, and so the key starters might miss out on a few league matches as they prepare for the Cup.

RBNY has 21 league games left this season and Kaku needs 18 more assists for the MLS single-season record. I don’t see how he gets it done, mostly because I don’t think he’ll be playing in all 21 of those remaining games.

But nine assists (and three goals) in 11 league appearances is a helluva start to his RBNY career. He’s put up those numbers in part because he’s a very good player, who seems well suited to the way the Red Bulls want to play: he’s got great technique, so he can do things with the ball that less technical players cannot; he’s astute and blessed with good vision, so he amplifies his above-average skills with intelligent decisions; and he seems to like the sort of challenges that the RBNY system throws up - quick movement, working the ball out of tight spaces, and supporting the press when possession is lost.

Credit is also due to Jesse Marsch and his staff, who seem to have learned from past mistakes. The last time RBNY threw down a few million dollars to get an Argentine forward, it didn’t work out so well: we basically had three seasons of reasons why Gonzalo Veron wasn’t ready to start this week. With Kaku, the coaching team seems to have moved much more quickly and confidently to establish the new signing in the starting lineup. No player should be guaranteed a start just because of a large transfer fee, but no club should be unable to figure out where its record-signing fits in the first team. It feels like RBNY is much clearer about what it expects from Kaku and how to get it from him than it had been with Veron.

Still, for me, none of that is the real reason behind Kaku’s abundant assists. I think the real reason is a lot simpler: it’s Bradley Wright-Phillips. RBNY’s all-competitions single-season assists has been broken twice in the four full seasons that BWP has played for the club: by Thierry Henry in 2014, and by Sacha Kljestan in 2016. And the RBNY assists record that preceded the BWP era has been at least matched in every full season that he’s played for the team. It’s long been the case that RBNY’s assist-makers — Henry, Kljestan, now Kaku — get a lot of credit for BWP’s scoring. But that analysis overlooks just about the only thing they have in common: they played behind the Red Bulls’ all-time leading scorer in his prime (for RBNY, at least). Put a good creative player in a position to make things happen, and you expect to see some assists. But experience suggests that if you put that player behind BWP, you see some assists records.

SaH: Maybe this is answered in #2, but I don’t understand how an offense with such a low completion rate, that’s so cross heavy, can work.

OAM: Well, sometimes a low completion rate is describing exactly what it suggests: an offense that isn’t working. RBNY isn’t immune to a bad day, by any means. And teams will often sit back at Red Bull Arena, inviting the Red Bulls to attack a packed defense. When that approach works out for the visiting team, we usually see a lot of missed chances and flubbed passes.

But completion rates are probably the wrong thing to focus on with RBNY. The team doesn’t really care too much about passing percentages or shots on target. What it cares about is controlling space, particularly in the final third. If the Red Bulls are playing most of the game in and around their opponent’s penalty box, they’ll back themselves to get more goals than the other side. And in the RalfBall philosophy, a misplaced pass can be as valuable as one that finds its target: it’s about where the ball is and how quickly the Red Bulls can win it back, more than how long the team can hold on to possession. “Controlled chaos” is a phrase we’ve heard Jesse use before, and it’s a phrase he gets direct from the Red Bull Global Soccer brains trust in Germany and Austria.

So even on their best days, the Red Bulls aren’t necessarily particularly accurate with passing or shooting. They’ll play a long punt up the field, or a speculative shot, or an over-ambitious cross just to see if they can win the second ball in a better position. When it doesn’t work out, it can be infuriating to watch. But the method to the madness is that a team in transition between attack and defense is at its weakest positionally, and to engineer that potential imbalance, sometimes you need to surrender possession and try to force a mistake. And for RBNY, “sometimes” is “as often as you need to until the game is won”.


OAM: Slow start to the year for the Sounders: is the team just pacing itself for the seemingly inevitable season finale against Toronto in December? Or is there something gone awry in Seattle?

SaH: The list of things that have gone wrong is long and includes every portion of the soccer organization. Things have been complicated due to the nature of making two MLS Cups in a row and having CONCACAF Champions League this year. That gave a older than average squad less time to recover and so there are some nagging soft-tissue injuries. But those aren’t the only injuries.

Star forward Jordan Morris was lost to an ACL injury suffered at Santa Tecla in the first CCL match of the year. Both Nicolas Lodeiro and Kelvin Leerdam took their injuries during practice when their own teammates took them out. Will Bruin is playing through a plantar fascia issue. Even fourth-string forward Felix Chenkam, a 19-year-old they signed from S2, went down with a hamstring issue. Henry Wingo had surgery on his hand.

On top of all the injuries the Seattle Sounders have had an available DP slot unfilled. That looks to be nearly sorted out now, but it meant that for about 40% of the season the forward list was Will Bruin and Bruin Will. President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey waited for the ideal rather than the adequate. It hurt the early season.

The coaches aren’t blameless either. Brian Schmetzer tends to value work rate and veterans often. He is a true believer in the heart of the Sounders, and that powered him to a record that is still above average over the past 2+ seasons, even with this horrendous start.

They are finally through most of the injuries, have a DP on the way, only lost two of four eligible players to the World Cup and Schmetzer’s effort/emotions can magnify a team this talented and carry them on a run, again.

OAM: Who’s out for the World Cup, and how much are they missed?

SaH: Seattle wound up only losing two players. The good news is that they prepared well for this and signed South Korean centerback Kim Kee-Hee. Kim will start in defense making up for the loss of Roman Torres (Panama). The other loss is Sweden defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson.

Svensson is the bigger loss, but that’s because for Seattle he’s the strongest utility defender on the team. This season most of his play came as a DM, but he also played CB. Last year he spot started at right back as well. A strong on-man defender with good passing skills and height, though not great in the air. He has a unique contract situation where he’s making more than a million dollars, but Seattle is paying about 1/3 of it. Cristian Roldan, Jordy Delem and the close to healthy Osvaldo Alonso will take up the slack in midfield.

Torres is the hero of Panama, their captain and one of the strongest personalities on the Sounders. His skills may be aging out and he has a bit of a habit of starting seasons slow. Torres also likes to get much further forward than any other CB in the league. In fact it was his goal, scored in the run of play, that sent Panama to their World Cup. Kim is more mobile laterally, not as good in the air and a better passer.

OAM: How do you think the Sounders will approach this game: play to their strengths and trust that quiets RBNY, or come out with a game-plan specifically tailored to the task of playing the Red Bulls in Harrison?

SaH: Seattle succeeds and fails when they play to their own strengths, even their formation adjustments during this poor start have been about maximizing the available talents and not a response to the opposing team. What their identity is remains a question. The injuries and absences covered earlier mean that the team has played even more defensive than usual. That will likely change now that Lodeiro and Rodriguez are back. They’ll look to feed throughballs, even to older, slower forwards. They can also dribble through heavy traffic and Rodriguez has a first touch that opens space like none other.

Look for wide play to come from the fullbacks, one of the DMs will drop back to be a pseudo-CB, the wide mids will flop sides regularly while Dempsey drops into the space an 8 uses and also steps up to mimic a forward. That’s the basics of the shape. It’s not complicated. When there’s talent on the field it can win a lot.