Red Bulls set for home opener against Nashville SC

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Orlando City, Red Bulls defender Andres Reyes

PREVIEW – The New York Red Bulls will entertain Nashville SC Saturday night for their 2023 season home opener. New York lost the opening game 1-0 at Orlando City via Facundo Torres penalty off a dubious VAR handball call in the box. Nashville in their slick Johnny Cash black kits easily dispatched NYCFC 2-0 at home. This will be just the third ever meeting between the two clubs, the previous two came in the 2021 MLS campaign. Red Bulls fans will enjoy those memories, beating them 2-0 and leaving Nashville with a 1-1 draw that put them in the playoffs, in Gerhard Strubers’ first year as manager. Now, things have changed with Nashville back in the Eastern Conference, and the Red Bulls looking to re-establish Red Bull Arena as a fortress. Here’s what to watch for in Harrison.

Red Bulls set for home opener against Nashville SC

Nashville SC feeling right at home back in the Eastern Conference

The re-introduction of Nashville into the Eastern Conference was a storyline that didn’t get much play. But it’s important to note how successful this team was back in 2021 in the East. Gary Smith’s side finished third in the conference and went undefeated at home. A few players have left the side but the main characters remain. Hany Mukhtar, reigning MLS Golden boot and MVP, being one of them. The German has been simply magnificent since entering the league, a truly elite player. In the 2-0 win last week, he came off the bench and assisted on the second goal to Jacob Shaffelburg.

Nashville are not a side to be messed with. After Week 1, Nashville conceded the least Expected Goals (xG) conceded at 0.4. Smith put out his side in a 4-3-3 whereTeal Bunbury lead the line at striker. Shaffelburg and new signing Fafa Picault were great with a goal and an assist respectively. But much praise should also go to the tough midfield of Sean Davis, Anibal Godoy and Randall Leal, backed by Best XI defender Walker Zimmerman. Davis will make his return to Red Bull Arena since leaving the New Jersey club in free agency.

While Mukhtar came off as a sub in the opening game, expect him to start Saturday night. The same might not be said for Godoy, as Smith said he “hasn’t trained all week” and hopes to have him “back in training next week”. Should the Panamanian not be in the starting lineup, look for either Luke Haakenson, Brian Anunga, or former Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty to take his spot.

Red Bulls have chance to correct poor home form from last season

Last week didn’t go to plan for Gerhard Struber’s men. The 1-0 loss at Orlando arguably should’ve seen a goal or two from the visitors. Elias Manoel had two really good chances, that went to waste and saw him eventually subbed off. The Brazilian posted an xG of 0.26 as the team’s biggest threat in attack, while also winning two ground duels and an aerial duel. The controversial handball in the box that penalized Sean Nealis had many wondering what the handball rule is about. Facundo Torres scored and the goal changed the game from then on. New York was the better team up until the point of the spot kick. Their pressing generated numerous chances that resulted in a 0.64 xG and the defense left Orlando without a shot on target, all in the first half.

Now the Red Bulls go home for the first time in 2023 to earn its first points. That in itself remains a big talking point. In 2022, the Red Bulls went 6-5-6 at home, winning 23 out of a possible 51 points. The six wins are the fewest ever in the Red Bull Arena era, and New York posted the fourth worst home record in the league last year. The fortress lost its shine last year, Struber and the Red Bulls need to put that right if this team is to take the necessary steps to go places. However, it’s likely they’ll still be without Dante Vanzeir as he ramps up his fitness. So expect Tom Barlow and Manoel to lead the line again.

The form of Luquinhas has been a real worry. He hasn’t had a goal contribution – goal or assist in a match – since August 2. The 12-match run without said contribution is a huge sample size, Struber has noted he and his coaching staff have worked with him to get him back to his best. The player himself revealed he has been self-critical of his performances, so a goal or assist would do him a world of good. On the bright side, look forward to Cameron Harper once more after excelling as the attacking right-back last Saturday.

Prediction: Red Bulls 1-1 Nashville SC

Don’t expect the beautiful game in this one. The Red Bulls after Matchday 1 already lead the league in fouls, so anticipate tough tackles and disjointed play in midfield. New York hasn’t won a home opener since 2020, while Nashville has never won in Harrison, or beaten their opponents. The visitors carry more goal threat in Mukhtar alone, and last week showed their threat in set pieces. And until a Red Bulls striker scores a goal, it’s unlikely they’ll score more than once in this match. Both defenses are resolute, so I have this as a point apiece for each team.