Sitting in the stands last month at Red Bull Arena, watching New York face New England, I had the chance to see Thierry Henry's fantastic, looping finish over Matt Reis – quickly followed by the Frenchman pulling his hamstring and being replaced in the 25th minute. While New York continued on to a victory against the Revs, consensus was that’d be the last three points RBNY picked up for quite a while.
When the ensuing news of Henry's injury timetable rippled across MLS, there were some very tough questions being asked of how the Red Bulls would survive without their in-form Designated Player. Could Kenny Cooper lead the attack himself? How would RBNY line up against the defending champion LA Galaxy in the next matchday?
In short: How would a team that had relied upon its ability to outscore the opposition handle themselves with their keystone missing for at least a month?
Over the weekend, these questions were answered. While New York's 1-0 victory against the Galaxy wasn't comprehensive, it was convincing. RBNY's adjustments were “top class,” to borrow a favorite phrase of manager Hans Backe.
And with the help of the OPTA chalkboard from the match, we’ve identified precisely what those adjustments are.
Below on the left is the network passing graph of New York's 2-2 draw with San Jose in April with Henry (No. 14) and Cooper (No. 33) paired up top. On the right is the network passing graph of New York's Henry-less victory over LA from this past weekend.
The biggest obvious adjustment is using Dax McCarty (No. 11) as a true defensive midfielder. Looking at the Chalkboards powered by OPTA for both the San Jose and LA matches, there is a stark difference in his passing preferences. McCarty became the primary outlet for both central defenders, and was far less adventurous in his own distribution. Compared to the San Jose match – in which New York played a "flat four" midfield, he was much more of a focal point.
As a defensive midfielder, one is expected to plant himself in front of the back four with very limited offensive responsibilities (see video below). Over the course of this season, the standard deviation of McCarty's passing position has been 19 yards. This means that around two-thirds of all of his passes are expected to originate from less than 19 yards of his average position.
As a defensive midfielder against LA, this number dropped to 14 yards – by far his lowest of the season. Clearly, he adapted to this new role very quickly.
McCarty's static deployment allowed Mehdi Ballouchy (No. 10) to play a more central and free role. In this game, the Moroccan tied his season-high for passes received (39) and co-led the team in passes completed (37) with McCarty.
Joel Lindpere (No. 20), who has played almost exclusively down the left flank for New York this season, was the main link to Cooper – as expressed by the thick dark line between them on the network graph. This pair exchanged a total of 14 passes, a good number for a team reliant on the counterattack to generate offense.
Aside for Cooper's advanced and central positioning, his role was tactically uninteresting. Arguably, his most important influence on the game was providing space in which Lindpere and Ballouchy could operate.
However, this shouldn't be an overlooked achievement. Despite his size, Cooper has rarely been disciplined enough to play as a target forward. Doing so on the day showed a new level of maturity for the veteran, and his evolving role in New York will be exciting to watch.
Backe deserves a handful of credit for getting their players quickly and effectively acclimated to positions different that they have previously played this season. Having players comfortable with this level of flexibility should make New York a dangerous and dynamic team down the stretch, as coaches often have to juggle rosters while the season wears on.
Devin Pleuler is a computer science graduate from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, where he played on the men's varsity team as a goalkeeper. He's certified as a coach through both the USSF and NSCAA, and writes the Central Winger analytics column for MLSsoccer.com.
Between the Lines: True D-Mid