Red Bulls Matchday Preview: NYCFC

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Caden Clark and Nicolas Acevedo battle in a 2021 derby. | Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

The third derby of the year has more precise bragging rights at stake in the season’s final weeks

I love taking the train at night. After a full day of doing super adult business things, there’s nothing like sitting in the weirdly comfortable seats and staring out the window as you casually travel at speeds incomprehensible to a 14th century peasant. Sometimes I put on old jazz and pretend I’m in a period piece about an upper middle class stockbroker from the 40s who’s slowly being sucked into the mob. Not that I would survive in the mob. I never watched Goodfellas.

Tactics Board

The New York Red Bulls visit Yankee Stadium this Saturday for a matchup against NYCFC at the tail end of the season. The league has been doing their best to make the Hudson River Derby an actual rivalry since its inception, and while it can feel a bit manufactured at times there’s still hostility when the teams meet. After the Red Bulls mathematically clinched a playoff spot on Wednesday, the team really has little to play for other than a potential home playoff opener (which considering the team’s home form might not even be the best idea), and bragging rights. NYCFC on the other hand still have a foot in the postseason door thanks to their early season form, but a drastic turn in form has left them now anxiously looking over their shoulder, and needing 3 points to keep things comfortable. It’ll be a fascinating look into the motivations of both sides, and whether or not Gerhard Struber and his staff can keep the young squad focused against their hungry rivals.

As previously mentioned, NYCFC have had a shocking change in form in 2022. The departure of their MLS Cup winning head coach Ronny Deila in July hurt them deeply, with the team 8-2-3 with the Norwegian in charge and 5-5-8 after his exit. Interim head coach Nick Cushing, former manager of the dominant Manchester City Women, has not been able to get the best out of the talented squad, as the Pigeons have gone dangerously close to undoing all the good work they put in at the start. Deila’s championship winning side was an attacking spectacle, a possession based side that slowly worked their way up the field before quickly creating and taking a chance. The team has averaged 57.3% possession in 2022, the third highest in the league, not at all afraid to take touches on the ball and play with patience. The 4-2-3-1 used by Deila got the best out of the talented wing duo of Talles Magno and Jesus Medina, it gave playmaker Maxi Moralez freedom to do as he like, and striker Valentin Castellanos was a marvel to watch as he terrorized opposing defenses with his elite movement and clinical finishing. While not overly exuberant pressers, NYCFC were extremely efficient in recovering the ball in crucial areas, still currently maintaining the second best successful pressure percentage in the league.

However Medina and Castellanos have gone to Russia and Spain respectively, Moralez is feeling the effects of age, and the press has not been nearly as effective in recent weeks. The departure of Castellanos in particular has damaged the side, who chose not to sign a replacement striker and have instead relied on Talles Magno, who was performing in the top tier of MLS wingers, to play as a false 9. Magno has not been able to adjust, and his goals drying up has left the team without the ruthlessness that characterized them for so long. Tactically Cushing has mostly maintained the same identity, but like the aforementioned press, it’s just not as effective anymore. Injuries to key players like Alex Callens, Keaton Parks, and Alfredo Morales have played a part, but going winless in their last 5 league games and only finishing victorious once in their last 10, it’s evident that the team is simply not playing well.

There’s still reason for hope, however, in the NYCFC camp. The team endured a similar slump at the tail end of the campaign in 2021, lasting from about August to October, before going on a late tear and eventually going on to win it all. Despite their atrocious league form of late, a recent trophy win in the Campeones Cup, who everyone remembered existed, has left the squad jubilant and reenergized. The potential of a reset is tantalizing for a club that’s struggled so much, and has a tight race to the playoffs ahead of them. A win against rivals would be a huge psychological victory, so form can essentially be thrown out the window with the amount of motivation NYCFC will have. The Red Bulls will have an emotional tsunami to stop in its place as they try to remain consistent ahead of a hopeful playoff run, and would similarly benefit with a win. Saturday’s game is unlikely to have any major effects on the standings this week, but could be a marker for how the two teams will perform in the last two games of the regular season, and beyond.

Kit Contemplations

NYCFC have opted for their home “Bronx Blue” kit against the Red Bulls. The baby blue and white design has been a staple of the club’s home kits since its inception, and while it’s not too different from any of its predecessors, it’s still a nice shirt. Essentially a simplified version of what Manchester City put out every year, the comforting shade of blue is well complemented by the predictably placed white accents. The simple collar and cuffs are a nice touch, giving the entire shirt a clean and classy look that looks great on the pitch. A past version of myself would have bemoaned the lack of creativity or originality, but fatigue has set in and I just think it’s pretty.

7/10.

Squad Superlatives

Most likely to show up at your local pickup game - “Maxi” Moralez

I’ve been bodied by at least 5 men that look exactly like the Argentine midfielder throughout my career of playing soccer with old Hispanic men at parks.

Least photogenic - Sean Johnson

The goalkeeper looks fine in his in-game photos, but in every posed picture I’ve seen he just looks like he’s been caught off guard and rushed his expression. Not that he’s ever been surprised on the pitch.

Scariest - Anton Tinnerholm

Unless you’re Leigh Griffiths apparently.

Most likely to steal your girl - Talles Magno

Also a pretty decent soccer player, the Brazilian could genuinely be a model with his chiseled face and well-kept hair. There’s really no competing.

Honorable mention - Matias Pellegrini

Predicted Lineups

NYCFC (3-4-3): S. Johnson, A. Callens, Chano, T. Martins, O’Toole, Acevedo, Moralez, T. Gray, S. Rodriguez, Talles Magno, G. Pereira

NY Red Bulls (3-4-3): Coronel, S. Nealis, Long, Reyes, Tolkin, Edelman, Casseres Jr., Duncan, Luquinhas, Maneol, Morgan

Players to Watch

Gabriel Pereira

“When in doubt, just buy some random young Brazilian winger” has been a tried and tested transfer strategy for much of the modern age, and NYCFC have reaped the benefits of the never-ending fountain of the Campeonato Brasileiro with the gem that is Gabriel Pereira. Signed from Corinthians back in March, the winger has wasted little time acclimating to the United States, scoring 7 times in his debut campaign and becoming a regular fixture in the lineup. Stereotypes are bad and should not be perpetuated, but the Brazilian is a skillful and direct winger with a stinging shot and an expected amount of dribbling ability. Able to accelerate and burst through defenses quickly, he’s an X factor that can change the game in the blink of an eye. Nick Cushing has rewarded his good form with a string of starts in recent weeks, so expect to see him against the Red Bulls, as he torments defenders and makes you wish he was playing for your team.

Elias Manoel

The Red Bulls seem to have misheard the “young Brazilian winger” maxim and have once again purchased an unproven striker from the Brazilian second division. While he’s no Fabio, Elias Manoel has been thrust into the lineup immediately and done quite well for himself, grabbing his first assist for the club last week on a give-and-go with Christian Casseres that displayed excellent hold-up ability and a neat first touch under the circumstances. With Patryk Klimala still recovering from an ankle problem that’s kept him out of the squad for 3 matchdays, and Tom Barlow… probably not starting, Manoel is expected to make his third consecutive start against the Hudson River rivals. The Red Bulls attack has not typically flowed through the striker position, but having a number 9 in form is always a positive, and against an NYCFC defense that has struggled in recent weeks Manoel should have ample opportunity to show that he can be relied on for the rest of the season. He only has a small amount of time before the organization has to make a decision on signing him (unless the club decides to pull another Tom Edwards), so assuming he wants to stay in New York he’ll be eager to start having a tangible impact on the team.

Final Prediction

Despite the Campeones Cup win, I still don’t think the underlying issues in this NYCFC team can be solved by a trophy rush. The steady Red Bulls should put their rivals in their place with a 2-0 victory.

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