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Three Questions: Sounders vs Red Bulls

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James from Once a Metro stops by for a lovely chat.

Sounder at Heart: Both the Sounders and the Red Bulls are coming off 2-0 losses to the Colorado Rapids. Are the Rapids the best team in the world right now? Are you overly concerned about the result, or is it just MLS being MLS?

Once a Metro: In quintessential Red Bulls fashion, a former player/coach (in this case, former assistant Robin Fraser) came to Red Bull Arena and took what the Red Bulls needed. It was the car crash every critic saw coming from a mile away: a highly-motivated Rapids team against a mysteriously Jekyll-and-Hyde Red Bulls side. At least Seattle’s loss came on the road. The Red Bulls have now lost five matches at Red Bull Arena, mainly because their “system” is malfunctioning.

It’s way more than everyday MLS flukiness. Subpar teams such as Colorado, Orlando, Montreal, Vancouver and Columbus have found it far too easy sitting behind the ball and countering at Red Bull Arena. All five of those teams took points at RBA (four losses, one draw).

After a few seasons of developing the high press, where these kinds of results happened from time to time, last season was virtually flawless, making the sudden drop in quality all the more maddening.

SAH: Most MLS fans forget that the Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield last season while setting a record for regular season points. This season, RBNY has struggled to reach that level again. What’s been the cause of the struggles and what defines a successful season for you this year?

OaM: It’s easy to forget because, in a sense, the Red Bulls have forgotten how to be that Supporters’ Shield-winning team. Tim Parker – who Sounders fans should be familiar with from his time in Vancouver – admitted last week that New York “accepted the fact [it] won’t be the record-breaking team” of last year. On one hand, it’s an obvious concession for a team lightyears behind the standard of LAFC and sixth in the Eastern Conference with a .500 record. On the other hand, it’s a sad admission into how the standard has dropped from last year.

Thinking about the Sounder At Heart audience, I’d relate what New York is going through to what Seattle went through for most of 2016 before the turnaround and eventual MLS Cup. It’s not quite as bad, it’s a rough comparison, but I think there is a parallel to be drawn between the Red Bulls losing Tyler Adams and when the Sounders dealt Obafemi Martins.

Seattle lost so much of the dynamism that made its attack lethal, and New York lost the tireless energizer in midfield to clean up when the team got stretched. Both teams expected rising players (in Seattle’s case, Jordan Morris, in New York’s case, Cristian Casseres) to fill the void, but neither offered quite the same amount as their predecessors to start.

The biggest difference is, Seattle addressed its struggles that year in the summer by signing Nico Lodeiro, and the Red Bulls have only brought in Josh Sims on loan. Red Bulls fans are pretty much resigned to the idea it will take an against-all-odds run like Seattle in 2016 to finally get that elusive Cup. And, that’d actually be the most fitting way for New York to do it.

SAH: It’s been nine years since RBNY has come to Seattle and gone home with a victory. What needs to happen on Sunday for the Red Bulls to be victorious?

OaM: Well, in a twisted way, the good news is, everything mentioned in the first question about New York struggling when bad teams bunker against them in Harrison, won’t be the case on Saturday in Seattle. The Sounders will likely take the game to the Red Bulls at CenturyLink Field, which should suit the visitors, because I don’t expect them to entirely sit back either.

New York can hardly afford to rest players, but Aaron Long did just play 155 minutes in two matches with the U.S. National Team, and a quick (arguably, more winnable) match-up in Portland follows on Wednesday. So, as per usual this season, Chris Armas will have a difficult lineup decision. Of course, the answer will have been to play Long when the Red Bulls ship three or more goals and he doesn’t start, but Long has been mistake-prone when playing on short rest this season.

Above all else, the biggest key will be, how do the Red Bulls plug their holes in defensive midfield? One of the more underreported aspects of New York’s season is how Marc Rzatkowski has often done a solid job filling in at a variety of spots, but he needs a midfield juggernaut next to him. The closest thing is Casseres, so the hope will be all three of Rzatkowski, Casseres and Sean Davis combine to handle an imposing Seattle attack.