Ahead of tonight’s game at Red Bull Arena, New York has climbed to joint-top of the Eastern Conference (on points), but that statement requires a couple of caveats. The Red Bulls have played more games than Houston, Kansas City, and Montreal – the three teams also tied atop the East – and with recent wins over Philadelphia, Chicago, and New England, the team’s surge has been fueled by a fortunate stretch in the schedule.
Tonight, however, Mike Petke’s team can sweep aside those asterisks if they can beat the Impact at Red Bull Arena, a team they’ve already lost to once this season. But that 1-0 March loss in Montreal came during New York’s slow start, one that left them near the bottom of the East through the league’s opening weeks. If they can get a result against Montreal, the contrast between March and May will serve as clear evidence New York have turned things around.
Montreal’s only lost once this season, with Kansas City knocking them off last month at Sporting Park. Their points-per-game rate is better than any other team in the East, and only the Galaxy have allowed fewer than their seven goals. While some may yet harbor concerns Montreal’s is just a fast start, five points in three games since their KC wakeup call hint Marco Schallibaum’s team may yet stick around.
That’s bad news for the rest of the East, but against a Red Bull team that lacks any significant wide threats, it’s particularly troublesome news. The key to Montreal’s success has been a tight defense which, playing Patrice Bernier behind Davy Arnaud and Felipe Martins in midfield, locks down the middle of the part. Go wide, go around them, you might be able to do some damage, put try to go through the middle, and you’re unlikely to generate many chances. Attacks lead to turnovers lead to counters – Montreal’s plan’s not difficult to figure out. What’s harder is trying to comeback if you give up the first goal.
As it concerns breaking down the Impact. Thierry Henry and Fabian Espindola venturing left could prove crucial. Players like Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander are going to have to more wingers than midfielders. Brandon Barklage and Roy Miller need to contribute going forward, and when they establish possession in the attacking third, Juninho’s rotations wide could setup crucial service, particularly from the right side.
This is where the limitations of this Red Bull team come into play. When you look at their squad, you see a lot of talent but not a lot of complementary parts, which leads to a lack of options for Mike Petke. Ultimately this team is dependent on its stars to step up, something that has worked in recent weeks. With Tim Cahill finally finding goals, New York has gone on a run.
With Cahill, Henry, and Juninho, New York has ways to get around Montreal’s advantages. Just like against any other opponent, if the Red Bulls put their stars in situations to succeed, they can derail the Impact. Whether they will or not might tell whether they truly deserve to be atop the East.