HANOVER, N.J. – The league’s leading scorer and the top assist man in MLS were held off the scoreboard on Sunday, the Montreal Impact doing a masterful job in neutralizing forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and midfielder Sacha Kljestan in a 1-0 win in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It was certainly a game plan that the Red Bulls expected.
And it is an approach that they will have to counter if they hope to advance in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs following Sunday's return leg at Red Bull Arena (4 pm ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes | TSN5, RDS in Canada).
Every time Kljestan got the ball against the Impact in the first leg, he faced two if not three markers as the Impact swarmed him. It was the play of Kljestan in running the midfield for the Red Bulls that got him several recent call-ups to the US national team. But it was the Impact’s tremendous defensive effort in neutralizing the playmaker that helped to take the entire New York attack out of sync on the day.
Despite a decided edge in possession in that first leg, the Red Bulls managed just three shots on goal.
“It’s a little bit expected. I think we knew coming in that they were going make it hard on me and [Wright-Phillips]. And if I was Montreal I’d probably do the same,” Kljestan said after Thursday's training session.
“It’s now up to some other guys as well. If they are going to really hone in on the two of us then we need other guys to step into the midfield and step-up to make plays as well. We have guys that can do that.”
In many ways, as the Kljestan goes so goes the Red Bulls. The team has just one loss this season when he has an assist, a testament to how he truly is the ideal playmaker for this team.
The same certainly goes for Wright-Phillips, the league’s leading goal scorer, who like Kljestan is an MLS MVP finalist.
“Listen, we’ll have more of the ball, we’ll be able to push them back more. We’ll be in better space, we’ll have more possession. We’ll create more chances. We know that they’ll be physical with us. We’ll hopefully get a referee that can manage that,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said.
“Brad and Sacha have been fantastic and they’ll be good again. They’ll get the opportunities, they’ll get their chances. They’ll have plenty of time to see things on the ball and make plays.”