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Final

After early struggles in Montreal, New York Red Bulls' tactical shift shows off deadly counterattack

Preseason performances are often overlooked or forgotten, but that wasn't the case with New York Red Bulls as they prepared for their road game in Montreal.

The Red Bulls came out in a new-look 4-1-4-1 formation in Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Olympic Stadium with the Impact, and a big reason for that was the preseason match that the two clubs played in in Orlando in February. New York won that exhibition match, 3-0, but regretfully ceded the majority of possession.

That, and the absence of several key starters, led head coach Mike Petke to deploy Eric Alexander in a holding role behind fellow central midfielders Peguy Luyindula and Bobby Convey. Petke’s tactical adjustment got off to a miserable start, with Montreal taking the lead five minutes in and unleashing a barrage of shots that goalkeeper Luis Robles did well to turn away.

The space between the midfield and defense, the lack of pressure from New York and Alexander's struggles to cover so much ground were the primary culprits for that sluggish beginning. But the Red Bulls eventually settled into the game, created chances of their own and turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead before halftime.

It was the first time this season that New York scored more than once in a game, and they did so without Designated Players Thierry Henry (did not travel due to turf field) and Tim Cahill (injured).

“We wanted to put that extra [central player] in midfield,” said Petke, when expounding on what he wanted to remedy from that preseason match. “I thought early on it didn’t really work out, but as the game wore on I thought that we had some pretty good moments with the ball with those three in the midfield, especially hitting them on the counter.

“The whole thing was to protect us a little bit in front of our back four and also to have that ball and be a little creative.”

The Red Bulls were not overly creative, but they were especially effective on the counterattack. As was the case on several road games in 2013, New York used quick transitions to create most of their dangerous opportunities against the Impact.

In fact, the Red Bulls’ two goals from Jonny Steele and Luyindula came on well-executed counters.

“I think that’s just part of our identity now when we’re on the road,” said Robles. “If we can grind out results on the road then we’re going to be successful. But we know it’s important for us to maintain possession in times that we need it and go forward, and we have the players to go forward when we need.

“I think that’s why we caught Montreal off guard on those two goals, because it was just, bam, bam, bam, three passes and you’re already down at their goal and the boys did a good job of finishing them off.”

As well as they took their chances against the run of play, the Red Bulls still struggled defensively and missed a penalty kick en route to conceding an equalizer that left them winless in five games and undefeated in four (0-1-4).

There were many things Petke could have been unhappy with following the draw, but the way his club executed the counterattack was not one of them. He was "absolutely pleased" with that.

“We did very well with that last year in the right moments and tonight was the right moment for something like that,” said Petke. “Montreal, we’ll definitely not call them a desperate team, but they haven’t had a win and they’re a good team. Obviously, they were at home and we knew they would be sending players forward. Those two situations were exactly what we were hoping for.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.