In the opening stages of the campaign the New York Red Bulls and the Vancouver Whitecaps stormed to the top of the Eastern and Western Conference standings. Many across the league were eager to wax poetically about the early success enjoyed by the two, and while both have slowed down since a very fruitful spring Saturday’s meeting in Harrison, NJ promises a great deal in quality nonetheless. Caps supporters will harbour fond memories of their last contest with Major League Soccer’s most storied underachievers – 2014’s regular season opener – wherein three points were obtained after a resounding 4-1 victory at BC Place. That emphatic result marked Carl Robinson’s competitive debut at the helm and his side’s trip to the Garden State will mark his first return to the club he served as a player-coach for between 2010 and 2012. Jesse Marsch’s team represent a different challenge entirely to the outfit fielded by Mike Petke last term though, without Thierry Henry but improved elsewhere in part thanks to the introduction of Sacha Kljestan to the engine-room. Kljestan, with help from some esteemed colleagues, will certainly make things interesting when the refreshed Blue and White roll into town this weekend.
It’s never convenient to make the trip from YVR to the East Coast, especially in the knowledge that a similar journey will have to be made the following week. However, the much needed bye week and morale-boosting victory over the Galaxy in their most recent outing have coincided to put Vancouver in pretty good stead heading into this match. Prior to the second comprehensive win over the reigning champions of the year there was no such incentive to be optimistic with three losses suffered over a four-game stretch. At times, VWFC looked disjointed and played without any semblance of cohesion, yet fans were treated to a complete reverse in fortunes at the StubHub Center. Although Kekuta Manneh’s 32nd minute strike signalled the only occasion in which the ball nestled into Brian Rowe’s net on the night, the visitors were comfortably the better side and asserted their superiority with conviction. Some of the players made the most of their time off by taking vacations across North and Central America, well deserved having received few opportunities to relax with friends and family since the winter. The Whitecaps are 3W-3L-1D vs Eastern Conference clubs this season and have already matched the four road victories from 2014 without even reaching the midway point of the schedule.
While RBNY defeated the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks 3-0 in midweek US Open Cup action they have claimed maximum points from only one of their last eight fixtures in MLS, with their three most recent fixtures all resulting in defeat. This dismal picture is stark contrast to the consistency displayed in March and April, where the much maligned decision to sack Mike Petke in the offseason felt somewhat vindicated. That said, every team endures rough patches and a great deal in confidence been reaped from the mere feeling of a win, regardless of the competition. Complacency was an issue on Tuesday evening after securing a two-goal cushion twenty minutes in though, unable to translate the apparent disparity in talent into a more resounding scoreline. The usually well-regimented Caps back-line and midfield won’t afford the same control – though that strategy has been successful away from home – so the onus will be placed on the attack to punish the inefficiency they are so frequently guilty of themselves. If Manneh can attack the defensive unit that shelled four goals to the Dynamo recently with the same authority in which he attacked Omar Gonzalez then there is reason to be hopeful that he will enjoy more of the same success in front of goal. As we all have learnt in that past that is by no means a foregone conclusion, mind.
Hard times for BWP
Something hurting New York in particular at present is the subpar production provided by the league’s most prolific frontman in 2014, Bradley Wright-Phillips. Many have drawn correlation between the underwhelming product exhibited by the Red Bulls lately to that of their integral striker, with most of the blame for his shortcomings landing at the head coach’s feet. Instead of leading the line as a focal point as he did when Petke held the reins BWP has been asked to drop deeper to create the attacking impetus by himself. This involvement incorporates his team-mates into the offense and that’s a good thing, but when the ball is delivered into the eighteen-yard box he is often nowhere to be seen as he joins the movement late. There has to be a rethink in approach before widespread panic consumes the impatient fan base, though Marsch arguably warrants leeway to some degree insomuch that he is still discovering the ins and outs of his roster. Henry’s absence is evident more so in Wright-Phillips battling with midfielders instead of the centre-backs he tormented in the company of the Frenchman than anywhere else. Even without the luxury of fielding someone blessed with Henry’s genius however, the role that yielded 27 goals has to be accommodated no matter the 30-year-old’s supporting cast if David Ousted is to be kept busy between the sticks. Moreover, Wright-Phillips will face more difficulty if he makes acquaintances with Matias Laba than he has from anyone else he’s danced with within this unfamiliar deeper position.
SB Nation blog Once A Metro published an interesting look into how ill-advised tactics were the architect of RBNY’s downfall against the Union a few weeks back – you can read the analysis here. What stood out to me was how careless the 2013 Supporters’ Shield winners were in possession in Philly’s half, throwing many men forward to leave the defence extremely vulnerable. To nobody’s surprise they weren't quite able to capitalize on such poor discipline but New York shouldn’t get off so lucky against one of the most dangerous counter-attacking teams in the league if indeed the same opportunities are presented Vancouver’s way. This will have no doubt been noticed by Robbo and the coaching staff in preparation for this battle and could decipher who starts to some extent. Manneh would have to be considered a lock for this reason and for his decisive contribution in Carson, so there isn’t much discussion there. Cristian Techera’s instinctive intelligence would ostensibly pay dividends vs unorganized shape and his energy compared to Rosales for example gives him an advantage too. Russell Teibert didn’t feature in the second leg of Canada’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers with Dominica so should be good to go fatigue issues notwithstanding. Teibert has been one of the most metronomic passers in MLS this season and with calculated distribution imperative to every attacking transition his selection over Gershon Koffie would make sense. Koffie will make that selection choice tough, playing some of his best soccer in a long time over the past few weeks. Either could have a big influence on proceedings if called upon from the bench too.
Uncertainty out wide for RBNY
Lloyd Sam departed the game against the Silverbacks in the 24th minute on Tuesday with groin and ankle discomfort, and is a doubt for Saturday at time of writing. Marsch claims that they are assessing the situation on a day-to-day basis with the groin pain supposedly the biggest obstacle at the moment. This could open the door for former Whitecap Dane Richards, who was a trialist for Robbo in the offseason before his rights were traded to the club that drafted him back in 2007, to feature against some familiar faces. Sal Zizzo is another candidate, but has spent time on the sidelines and there is some uncertainty as to whether or not he will be ready to start. The headache is worsened for the former Impact boss with Marius Obekop in Cameroon and absent from training this week to renew his VISA – Obekop is scheduled to return stateside with very little time to recover from the travel and jet lag before the match. Possibly the biggest detriment the dearth of wingers creates is how it will exacerbate the aforementioned conundrum with Wright-Phillips. Service has been lacking even with Sam – who has been electric at times under Marsch’s tutelage – so the prospect of things improving in that regard feels rather unlikely at this juncture. This could dictate a narrower shape with pressure on Kljestan and Felipe to take control in central areas or increase the volume of runs made by both full-backs down the wings. If you add in the nonchalant negligence to defensive vulnerability then the latter becomes a precarious tactic, even if necessitated by absentees.
Predicted starting line-up: Ousted; Beitashour, Waston, Kah, Harvey; Laba, Teibert; Techera, Morales, Manneh; Rivero
Predicted score-line: RBNY 0-2 VWFC