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Oppo Research: 5 Things about the Red Bulls

The Hudson River Derby is back, and our own Michael Battista tells us about why the New York Red Bulls are so hottt right now — and why he expects a draw on Saturday.

New York Red Bulls dangerman Lewis Morgan | Courtesy New York Red Bulls

 In this edition of Oppo Research, Hudson River Blue spoke with Michael Battista, who covers the Tri-State Soccer Scene and writes the Open Cup Digest for Hudson River Blue, to learn more about the Red Bulls, New York City FC’s opponent in the Hudson River Derby at Citi Field on Saturday. The calls are coming from inside the house! Here is your NYCFC vs Red Bulls preview.

1. The new-look Red Bulls are smarter, more indirect

Hudson River Blue: After losing to Inter Miami 6-2, the Red Bulls have won their last two games and scored eight goals. What’s led to the recent positive run of form and high-powered offense?

Michael Battista: I think it's important to remember that ahead of that 6-2 loss, the Red Bulls were on a six-game unbeaten streak. Plus that loss in Fort Lauderdale was only the second defeat the team had suffered this year after losing to the defending MLS Cup Champion Columbus Crew. But nevertheless, the answer to your question is two things: Flexibility and opposition.

This year, New York is playing more indirectly and being smarter with the ball. That’s really shown through in the last few games, even in the first half of the Inter Miami contest. That has led to points being left on the table with many of the five draws being frustrating examples of opposing teams being given too much space and too much time. But overall Lewis Morgan has shined, Emil Forsberg has been great on the ball, and the offense is being shared with five other players accounting for the six remaining goals scored this year.

The other truth is the opposition in the last two games have been beatable. New England is a wooden spoon candidate team and the Red Bulls still made it too close for comfort at times. D.C. United may have entered Wednesday three points behind RBNY, but that’s more on New York’s inability to secure three points in a fair number of games.

2. Schwarzball is working

HRB: The Red Bulls have an average possession of 41.7% per game, the lowest in MLS. Despite this, the team is in the top five of the Eastern Conference. How are the Red Bulls able to win games despite not having much of the ball?

MB: That kind of goes back to my last answer, so I can expand a bit further. In previous years under head coaches Gerhard Struber and, to a lesser extent, Troy Lesesne, the Red Bulls tried to be a direct attacking team. They lacked a consistent, top-guy goal scorer and opted to spread out the offense. That meant more possession but, frustratingly, not a whole lot more goals.

This year, new head coach Sandro Schwarz has opted for the offense to take a back seat in a sense. We all know John Tolkin is a star on this team but the play has seen him and others on the backline “enjoy” implementing a deeper block. This has resulted in more ball time for the opposition and more offense for them, with Carlos Coronel only having one clean sheet this season. But as the block becomes deeper the offense has become more calculated. 

This isn’t having Tolkin or Frankie Amaya bringing the ball through the midfield or up the side and chucking it in the box because “f*ck it someone is there”. This is making more, with less. This is pulling the opposing backlines so far up that a takeaway and precise long ball can find Lewis Morgan, Dante Vanzier, or Cameron Harper onside and ready for a run. That’s why the team leads the league in goals off counterattacks with seven.

3. Emil Forsberg: The hockey assist king

HRB: How has big signing Emil Forsberg been so far in his first season in Harrison? The Swedish midfielder has four goals and three assists in 11 matches, so how has the Red Bull faithful assessed him so far?

MB: I don’t think Emil Forsberg has been exactly what Red Bulls fans expect so far this season. In open play, the Swedish national team star has been great in areas like playmaking. If this was hockey, his assist number would be much higher as he’s been a playmaker for much of his time. He and Lewis Morgan have chemistry.

But then comes the part where he tries to score. With New York having less time with the ball that means more eyes are on Forsberg when he plays offense. A lot of the time those eyes see shots sail over the crossbar and into the South Ward. Three of the four goals he’s scored have come from penalty kicks. In a way, he reminds me a little bit of Fábio Gomes from 2021, albeit a lot better and more willing to be that second guy.

I’m not going to discuss or go into detail about the off-the-field news he’s been a part of, mostly because it’s no one’s business unless they are a part of the family.

All things considered, when Forsberg had made four of the fourteen MLS Team of the Matchdays, it's hard not to say he’s doing well. But considering the hype I think Red Bulls fans have expected a little bit more. Especially with him having the fifth-highest base salary in the league.

4. The X-Factor: Lewis Morgan

HRB: What’s the X-factor that could decide this game?

MB: Lewis Morgan has nine goals this season, enough for the fifth most in the league thus far in 2024. He’s scored goals in back-to-back games three times, including in the last two games against the New England Revolution and D.C. United.

Lewis Morgan Goal vs DC United

However, he hasn’t been able to make it three games in a row. Plus he and others on the team will be on short rest after playing in the nation’s capital on Wednesday. Even if my Starting XI is wrong and he doesn’t start, once he hits the field I believe he will be the key.

5. Predicted score, Starting XI

HRB: Prediction time: Starting XI? Final score?

MB: It’ll be close and I can’t really say either team has a killer edge, plus both are on short rest after playing south on I-95. Both teams are clicking and this isn’t the NYCFC of February and March. Both Red Bull losses have come on the road and they are missing “the City Killer” Omir Fernandez, who transferred all his power to Colorado.

I think the game ends 2-2, so no one leaves Citi Field happy. It’s just like being a Mets fan.

New York Red Bulls Predicted Starting XI