Sitting between Florian Valot and Kaku, the architects of the match’s only goal, at RBNY’s postgame press conference, Armas praised the duo’s ability to do work in between the opposition’s holding midfielders and defenders.
“They really understand how to operate in that red zone, we call it, the space between the other team’s [No.] 6s and backline, because of their awareness and their ability to know exactly where they are at all times, and then to make final plays, whether it's a goal or an assist. Their passing ability and intelligence is of a high level.”
Expect the “red zone” to be an area of focus in tonight’s duel with Columbus Crew SC, which now looks like a meeting of legit MLS is Back Tournament title contenders as well as a fascinating clash of contrasting philosophies.
Under the meticulous Caleb Porter, the Crew have built upon what Gregg Berhalter left behind and can now make a claim to the mantle of MLS’s most methodical possession team. The Ohioans build out of the back wherever possible, routinely string together lengthy passing sequences and are always looking to draw their opponents out of shape. It’s typically orchestrated by twin deep-lying mids Darlington Nagbe, arguably the league’s most press-resistant and impactful “zone mover,” and Artur, who covers ground and changes the point of the attack for maestro Lucas Zelarayan and the front line.
The Red Bulls are something else altogether. If you’re a regular MLSsoccer.com reader, that probably needs no explanation: The relentless high press operated by RBNY and the rest of their network of sibling clubs around the world is now a deeply-established identity. They set the tempo in nearly every match and are one of MLS’s outliers in terms of how their games look and feel.
Tempting as it may be, however, to frame this as a meeting of order and chaos, that’s not really accurate. As messy as that “energy-drink soccer” may appear, as aggravating and unsettling as it can be for adversaries, that’s only part of the picture. All that running is far from random, guided by specific and carefully-drilled pressing triggers. And while it’s generally been staffed by a revolving cast of characters including Homegrowns, draft picks and value pickups, it takes a touch of attacking class to push the whole enterprise to a higher level.
It’s been said, most famously by Jurgen Klopp, that the high press is a more effective chance creator than even the most talented and expensive playmaker, because of the geographical superiority it imposes on the game. Attacking moves that start closer to the opponent’s goal due to turnovers and transitions tend to be the most dangerous.
But RBNY shelled out real money, and waited out an interminable transfer drama, to secure Kaku’s services in 2017 because his eye for the killer pass or the scheme-breaking run could elevate everyone around him. And he reminded us of how that can work with his delivery to Valot against Atlanta.
As hectic as the Red Bulls can make a match, they often win their toughest ones by suddenly conjuring orchestration in key places. It will be Artur and Nagbe’s job to prevent that from happening in the red zone tonight, and it’s a pivotal test for a duo who spend long stretches with the ball rather than chasing it.
And conversely, Cristian Casseres Jr and Sean Davis have the job of protecting RBNY’s gut from the plundering of “El Pirata” Zelarayan, the Columbus club-record signing who makes his money in that very same red zone, even if he and his teammates arrive via a different route.