Welcome everyone to the best time of the Major League Soccer season, the MLS Cup Playoffs. Well, probably not for New York Red Bulls/MetroStars fans, who’ve known disappointment and painful losses this time of the year. Twenty-three times in the postseason, most in league history including a current 13-year run reaching the playoffs. Cincinnati fans will have their first-ever taste of the playoffs as they travel to Red Bull Arena. The two teams have endured two hotly-contested games this year, both finishing as 1-1 draws. Red cards, bookings, goals and a handshake controversy have filled the headlines between the two clubs.
Now comes the football once more. A look at this rubber match raises key questions for both teams and battles on the pitch that’ll be fun to watch. On paper, it’s the mostly evenly-matched game of the first round. The winner travels to the #1 seed Philadelphia Union. Kicking off at noon on Saturday, let’s take a look at what to watch for.
Brenner, Acosta and Vasquez vs Long, Nealis and Reyes
Let’s start with the most obvious and fun battle to watch. It’s the high-flying Cincinnati attack against the tough Red Bulls center backs. Brandon Vasquez has enjoyed a career year with 18 goals and 8 assists that has warranted serious USMNT consideration for the World Cup. He’s formed a great partnership with Brenner da Silva who also has 18 goals coupled with 6 assists, delivering on that big transfer fee. Both are under 25 and have posed problems to New York this season, Vasquez scored in the 1-1 draw back in July. And last but not least, Luciano Acosta has made himself into the league’s best playmaker this season with 10 goals and 19 assists. The trio under Pat Noonan have bamboozled opposing defenses with their movement and understanding, they are an ever-present threat on the pitch.
— Elias Manoel (@Eliasmanoel_) October 10, 2022
That’s where the likes of Aaron Long, Sean Nealis and Andres Reyes come in. Gerhard Struber has flip flopped between playing a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-2-1, but it’s likely he’ll go with a three-man defense to combat Cincy’s attack. Captain Long has been stellar this season and was snubbed for vote consideration for Comeback Player of the Year, chipping in with four goals. Sean Nealis has delivered a solid season and recently signed a new long-term contract. Aerial duels and long balls will be a big feature and Andres Reyes is one of the team’s best at winning those. There will be much physicality in winning first and second balls. Noonan will no doubt see this in preparation, but also embraces the task at hand.
“This is the best part of the year; when you’re a team, a coach, a player that gets to compete in the playoffs,” said Noonan. “Anything can happen. It’s a motivated group. They aren’t content just being here. The goal was to be here, but now that we are, let’s do something special.”
Daniel Edelman and Frankie Amaya vs Junior Moreno and Obinna Nwobodo
The middle of the pitch is a sacred ground, so let’s take a look at the midfielders involved. On the injury front for the Red Bulls, Cristian Casseres Jr is out with a leg problem. Daniel Edelman has shined in his debut season, playing the full 90 minutes in his last nine starts. Dru Yearwood is fit and available for selection, but it’s more likely that Frankie Amaya gets the nod alongside Edelman. The former Cincinnati man has had an up and down year but can still do the business with his tidy passing numbers. Both Edelman and Amaya each have a goal from shots outside the box, but lack the creativity to cut through defenses.
Daniel Edelman has put together a string of impressive performances for #RBNY. Under Gerhard Struber and the Red Bull style of play, the club has its next midfield general, writes @SirHarveyCruz. #MLS #LWOShttps://t.co/RnaICtxeCt
— Last Word on Soccer (@LastWordSC) August 29, 2022
On the flip side, Junior Moreno and Obinna Nwobodo have done well as a partnership in the middle. Moreno has two goals, Obinna has two assists to their names. The Nigerian has been great coming from Goztepe in Turkey. As a holding midfield who finds spaces, he gets in positions to shoot or set up a wingback for a crossing opportunity. Watch this battle because this could determine which teams has the most control over the course of the match.
Does Gerhard Struber go with Elias Manoel or Patryk Klimala up top?
This is a tough call for Struber to make. Both Manoel and Klimala are fit but both haven’t found their shooting boots. Patryk Klimala has been a major disappointment with just six goals and five assists in all competitions. Elias Manoel was brought on loan from Gremio, and finally grabbed his first two goals against Charlotte FC. Based on recent evidence, it appears that the Brazilian will start alongside Lewis Morgan and Luquinhas. Both have the mobility to push the backline and get in behind. The one downside is they both don’t win many aerial duels, which hurts the ability to counter attack or build up. The other striker will be on the bench. Struber will be placing a lot of faith in this call, it could cost him plenty if it backfires.
The substitutes that could decide the game
Neither one of the two benches are particularly strong. It’ll be difficult to see who, if anyone, will mark the difference in the second half or extra time. For the Red Bulls, Omir Fernandez has relegated himself to the bench but is dynamic enough to create a spark. Wikelman Carmona is back and can help up the field, but is young. Serge Ngoma is back from injury and could also create problems for a defense.
For Cincinatti, Yuya Kubo has been good off the bench and has scored against New York in the past. Dominique Badji is the other prominent striker on the bench and can cause problems in the air. Costa Rican midfielder Allan Cruz may be an extra time sub but is capable of pushing the ball in the final third.
The team is preparing for this Saturday's first round playoff match against FC Cincinnati at Red Bull Arena.
Hear what we had to say…#RBNYvCIN #RBNY
— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) October 13, 2022
The opening game of the MLS Cup Playoffs should be a tightly contested hard-fought affair. If there’s an X-Factor for each team, look for Luquinhas and Matt Miazga on either side. There’s more at stake for Gerhard Struber in this one. He’s already endured two first round playoff defeats, and a third one could spell the beginning of the end of his tenure. He was rumored for the Nottingham Forest job before the club sided with Steve Cooper. Struber will be linked to jobs abroad due to his work with young players. For Pat Noonan, a win will carry on the magic carpet ride his club are on in their best ever season.
Prediction: New York Red Bulls 2-1 FC Cincinatti in Extra Time
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