Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

With or Without You: Theirry Henry and the MLS Eastern Conference Wild Card

A celebration, strange as it may seem, is in order. A remarkable feat has occurred. A player that was once merely an asterisk on the biography of his famous brother has made a name for himself in MLS, and in doing so, won the Golden Boot. While the Red Bulls 4th place finish could be described as disappointing, the feats of BWP were anything but. His work rate and passion could be seen as the final whistle blew Sunday night, a frustrated scream that did not match the result that evening which saw the Red Bulls win 2-0 in their season finale on the road in Kansas City. The Red Bulls bounced back quite nicely after a game which saw them thoroughly beaten at home in a contest that ultimately determined the team entering the playoffs in 3rd place. The victory, which could be used to carry momentum into the postseason, also allowed the Red Bulls to return to Harrison Thursday in the win or go home MLS Eastern Conference wild card game. Center stage was Bradley Wright Phillips, working hard as he has all year, punishing defenses for their momentary lapse of form.

In truth, the Red Bulls returned to the type of play that earned them so many points last year. A scrappy physical style that relied on numbers behind the ball and quick strikes. The first half was far more possession oriented, but the results were the same. All of the attacks were cautious, with a mind on the results importance. In this area, I felt that Oyongo and Sam were somewhat disappointing. In spite of the result and score at the half, the wings yet again let down the team in the final third. An examination of the passing from the wings shows this without a doubt. Sam and Oyongo had a combined passing percentage of 68% (39 successful on 57 attempts), with 6 of those unsuccessful crosses into the box. Again, this could be a failing of the formation played. Even with Cahill in the middle of the pitch, the two were seldom dangerous with the ball in the air in the box. I would have liked to see the wings cut in more and take shots to get the ball bouncing around in the box.

However, as a team defending, there was a lot more fire to be found. SKC built only a handful of chances, and in large part that is due to the team defending as a unit, something we have seen on very few occasions this year. While I lambasted the offensive choices of the wings in the previous paragraph, I will laude their tenacity on the other side of the ball. I have mentioned before that Henry in the midfield will certainly make the team more dynamic going forward, but at the price giving up ground defensively. Henry is certainly no slouch playing defense, but his aged legs cannot be relied upon for the amount of defending required from a wing position over 90 minutes. Oyongo is a much stronger defender, playing him on the left will be good business come the playoffs. Look at his heat chart:


It shows Oyongo to have a strong understanding with incumbent left back Roy Miller. When Miller bombs forward, Oyongo hangs back and can cover the space her leaves, something Henry can’t do. On the opposite side, Sam and Eckersley still have work to do to match the left sides partnership, but Sam tends to be the one bombing forward with only the occasional Eckersley run.

We should all take a moment though, and marvel at the performance Eckersley put in against Sporting. Eckersley had 10 recoveries, the most of any defender on the field for either team. Think back to 7 months ago, and the torrid run of performances from maligned right back. I do not think I am in alone in assuming we would never see him again. Yet, he emerges from his cocoon a changed player. He offers a lot more bite these days. His tentative, almost sheepish defending from the beginning of the season has almost entirely vanished. Wingers look far less willing to challenge Eckersley these days, and most attacks have been coming down the opposite wing. While this may partly be a product of trying to overwhelm the left side because of Miller’s frequent trysts, make no mistake that at least a part of the reason has been his opposites work.

The real question heading into Thursdays game is where and if to start Henry, and what to do with Cahill. For the latter, he is coming off of a very solid performance in his first start in almost two months. He looked motivated, and played smart passes. He also put in a fair amount of defensive work from his spot up top that helped the team tremendously and forced turnovers in the final third. Can the Red Bulls afford to play both Cahill and Henry? That is a tough question to answer. Unless the two of them are starting up top, when they have played together this year the results have mostly been unspectacular at best. Henry fits more comfortable in the middle of the field with room to roam and find space, picking apart the defense with sharp passing. With Cahill inserted in the midfield, some of that work would be muddled as both have a tendency to play higher up the pitch, leaving either Alexander or McCarty a lot of space to patrol. A role that suits neither of them. With Cahill in that support slot, the offense becomes a lot more direct, and the team more defensively sound, but with fewer chances for BWP up top to continue his strong form. In any case, the experiment with Henry on the wing should be over for now.

RBA has been a called a cathedral. More appropriately it has been a theater of dreams, both euphoric and nightmarish. When it comes to the playoffs, it certainly falls in the latter category. What remains to be seen, it what could again be Henry’s final game in the building, is if the Red Bulls can cast aside their demons and emerge victorious amongst the likely sparse midweek crowd. Momentum has been built, the opponent comically bad over the last 10 games, but is it enough? Only time will tell.

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