Under new management, the New York Red Bulls travel to Mapfre stadium to take on third-seeded Columbus Crew.
While the Crew were on the sidelines this time last year, they bounced back big in the offseason, entering the season as contenders in the East. Defender Jonathan Mensah had a career year, Gyasi Zardes proved again he can be relied on up top and new signing Lucas Zelarayan showed to be among the league’s best players when healthy. This led to a push for the Supporters’ Shield for a large portion of the season.
During the MLS is Back tournament and the games that followed things weren’t looking great for the Red Bulls, leading to Head Coach Chris Armas getting fired. Interim coach Bradley Carnell helped bring the team to the playoffs, while new hire Gerhard Struber awaited for a U.S. work permit. Now in the States, Struber is set to take charge for the first time on Saturday.
Here is a closer look at the Crew-Red Bulls matchup:
The Red Bulls and Crew faced just once this season, battling in the MLS is Back group stage. Caleb Porter’s side walked away with all three points, goals from Gyasi Zardes and Pedro Santos leading the way.
Player to Watch
It has been another successful year for Zardes in Columbus, scoring 12 goals in a season where the Crew were in serious Shield contention despite consistent injuries. Twelve in 20 starts is a turnout any striker in the league would be proud of, but you can’t help but wonder how many more the 29-year-old would have scored with a full season of Lucas Zelarayan behind him.
What makes Zardes dangerous, especially against the Red Bulls, is making runs into space often created by his teammates. When these two teams faced down in Orlando, it was Aaron Long who fell victim, getting drawn to Pedro Santos, allowing Zardes to finish easily past David Jensen.
The USMNT defender had mixed results in 2020, shaking off some early struggles before finding better form in the second half of the season. That improvement coincided with the Red Bulls making a successful late-season push for the playoffs.
When Long is on his game he is one of the best defenders in MLS, and he is likely to see plenty of USMNT teammate Gyasi Zardes,
Matchup to Watch
KAKU vs. DARLINGTON NAGBE
If the Venezuelan playmaker is given the nod to start in the heart of Red Bulls attack, then Kaku will need to find a way to deal with Nagbe’s ability to dominate possession. The Red Bulls will look to press and force turnovers, but Nagbe will to ensure playmakers like Kaku don’t have much time to create.
The international break following the regular season appeared to leave many teams in MLS without key players, including Kaku. League charted flights have changed the fate for some, including the Paraguayan international who will likely be available for selection Saturday.
Kaku will be eager to hit the field again given his last outing with Paraguay. The 25 year-old came off the bench in the second half of a 2-2 draw with Bolivia, firing a loose ball into the back of the net.
The debut season of Lucas Zelarayan was limited to just over 1,000 minutes, but the Argentine’s production when on the field for Columbus was enough to be awarded MLS Newcomer of the Year. Now healthy and starting the Crew’s last three games, Zelarayan is ready to do damage in the playoffs.
Zelarayan makes every set piece a threat, makes space to get shots off for himself and looks for Zardes ahead of him. If the Crew are going to make a run in the East, he’ll have a big part in it.
Beyond the likely high energy game of soccer, the debut of a head coach in the playoffs is enough of a reason to watch this one. Gerhard Struber isn’t likely to make drastic changes ahead of this one, but he feels good about the squad he has to choose from.
“I know what is my first 11,” said Struber. “I think in this game we need not only the first 11, we need every single player in this club. I think we need a very good energy against a big team.”
The Crew do feel like the better team on paper, and have great options on the bench as well. Krisztián Németh scored when they needed against the Philadelphia Union and Luis Diaz can rattle up a team late.
It might be premature but the Red Bulls may have found consistency at the striker position since Bradley Wright-Phillip’s departure. Brian White has four goals in his last five games, two of them coming off the bench. They can also turn to Tom Barlow, who scored last time out against Toronto FC.
Caleb Porter and the Crew will look to control this game with Artur and Nagbe in the midfield, trying to make the Red Bulls react to them. While the Red Bulls can absolutely win this game and compete, the Crew are solid contenders to represent the East in MLS Cup.
“We’re going to have to grind and it’s probably not going to be the most aesthetically pleasing match, but it’s win and advance,” Porter said. “It doesn’t matter. Win and advance.”