A buzz of excitement has surrounded New York metro area sports in recent weeks, induced by the Knicks’ progress beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs and a Hudson River rivalry matchup in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs between the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.
Another Hudson River rivalry, this time in soccer between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC, takes place this week.
There might not typically be much at stake in a mid-May regular-season game of this type, but the situation both teams find themselves in, and the possibility of capitalizing on some of New York’s sporting buzz, means this particular derby provides an opportunity for the region’s soccer teams.
Said situation is not a particularly good one for either side, with both having plenty to work on now that the 2023 season is beginning to take shape.
Red-Faced Red Bulls
One team has much more cause for concern than the other, and the feeling around the Red Bulls camp has been so inauspicious that head coach Gerhard Struber left the club by mutual consent last week. He has been replaced by assistant coach Troy Lesesne, who will step into the head coach role at least until the end of the season.
Despite this, it has been, in many ways, business as usual for the team that will host this derby at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, but for some time now, business as usual has not been good enough for this team and its fans. The difference this season is that it hasn’t brought the desired results, leaving the team languishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, rather than in mid-table mediocrity, just about in the playoffs but pretty quickly out of them once the postseason starts.
In terms of scoring goals (just seven through 11 matches), it’s the worst start to a season in franchise history, including the days when the team was known as the MetroStars. Maybe such a poor beginning to 2023 was needed to startle the club into making the necessary changes to aim for something beyond playoff qualification long term.
The most familiar Red Bulls trait is that of intense high pressing. The team allows the fewest opposition passes per defensive action in MLS with an average of just 8.5. This comes courtesy of pressing as a priority, and 406 defensive actions in total so far this season – the most in all of MLS.
The Red Bulls also top MLS for the most high turnovers leading to shots (21) and the highest average of possession wins in the final third of the pitch per game (7.5), while they are one of just three clubs – alongside LAFC and Sporting KC – to have as high as 11% of their possession regains in the final third of the pitch. Perhaps unsurprisingly with all of this in mind, the Red Bulls have the committed most fouls in the league with 172.
Attacks are quick and frantic. The Red Bulls have the quickest average attacking sequence time in the league (5.80 seconds) and the fewest passes per attacking sequence (2.26). In 11 games so far this season, the team has only completed three open-play attacking sequences involving 10 or more passes ending in either a shot or at least one touch in the box, which is, again, the fewest in MLS.
Just as the purpose of possession can be questioned, so can the ultimate aim of such an intense, high-pressing style. The outgoing Struber might have argued it has produced goalscoring opportunities and that it wasn’t just Red Bull pressing for the sake of Red Bull pressing. This high-energy-drink football may have left the Red Bulls bottom in the East, but at the time of Struber’s sacking the club also had the best xG difference in the conference (+5.9).
The Red Bulls may have been creating some decent enough chances in games but just not finishing them. Maybe, once in a position to score, they were too tired or flustered from all the pressing and lack the composure to finish. A little less action, a little more conversion is required.
Much of that xG difference is down to having conceded the lowest xG total in the league (0.82 per game) while conceding 11 goals from those opportunities so far. On top of this, the Red Bulls lead the league for shot creation from dead-ball situations with 29. All of this indicates that while there were issues with the stodgy, disorderly looking style under Struber, there is at least a platform from which Lesesne and future coaches to build. If the Red Bulls can tidy up their act, the club has the potential to regularly emerge as one of the strongest teams in the East.
There was a promising sign in a midweek U.S. Open Cup win against DC United, as the game’s only goal came from the Red Bulls winning the ball back in the opposition half and producing something more considered and technically sound after doing so.
It was one of those typical Red Bull moves, scoring within eight seconds of winning the ball back, but it was much more precisely executed than many recent attempts. The Red Bulls also allowed no shots on their own goal in that game, retaining that defensive solidity. Doing something similar in the derby will be a bigger ask altogether.
City’s Road Trip Up
New York City FC crosses the Hudson River in the middle of a four-game run of away fixtures. A visit to Red Bull Arena may provide some respite, though, as it is a stadium City has called home at various points in recent seasons when its usual bases of Yankee Stadium and Citi Field have been occupied by their respective baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets.
City’s recent record at Red Bull Arena is mixed and doesn’t reflect its excellent form at stadiums on their side of the river in the Bronx and Queens. The club has just two wins at this venue in the previous 10 games played there, although one of these did come in this fixture last season when a Taty Castellanos goal defeated the Red Bulls in their own arena.
Castellanos is one of a number of key players City has lost in the previous year, leading to something of a rebuild in 2023. Head coach Nick Cushing and sporting director David Lee have been tasked with replacing the departing spine of the team. As well as star striker Castellanos, they lost creator Maxi Moralez, USMNT goalkeeper Sean Johnson, standout center back Alexander Callens, left back Malte Amundsen, versatile young forward Thiago Andrade, defensive midfielder Nicolás Acevedo, valuable backup striker Héber, and the most reliable of right backs, Anton Tinnerholm.
Replacing these players has not been an easy task and it is not yet complete, but Lee has worked well in the market, bringing in talented 22-year-old American midfielder Richy Ledezma, Argentine left back Braian Cufré, plus the especially shrewd signing of 18-year-old Slovenian right back Mitja Ilenič.
The return of James Sands after a disappointing loan spell at Rangers has helped greatly, as has the return of Santi Rodríguez on a permanent deal after the attacking midfielder spent last season on loan from City Football Group’s Uruguayan side, Montevideo City Torque.
The most obvious gap in the NYCFC squad is in the center forward position, but the use of Rodríguez as a false nine has shown some early promise, not least during the recent 3-1 win against FC Dallas in Queens. It has also brought teething problems, though, and at this stage, Cushing may be unsure whether to stick or twist. Does he persist with Rodríguez as a central forward or drop him slightly deeper, introducing a more recognized striker, even if not a recognized name, in Gabe Segal?
This lack of a striker means that the threat within the opposition goal area is often missing, with only five clubs having lower averages for shots from inside the box (6.6) or touches within the opposition box per game (18.7) than New York City FC this season in MLS.
Though the Red Bulls are the more active pressing team of the two, no player in MLS has won possession more often in the final third than NYCFC’s Rodríguez (14). Pressing doesn’t define the team, but it is one that does press, and though their PPDA of 11.9 (opposition passes per defensive action) is middle of the road within MLS this season, there will be plenty of moments in the game where the more advanced midfielders, especially Ledezma, plus the wingers, join Rodríguez in pressing the opposition high up the field.
NYCFC’s problems are more of a tactical, personnel nature, and even then it can be argued there’s only a need for fine-tuning rather than a redesign. There are rumours that a center forward is due to arrive in the summer transfer window, but with the talent the team has in the various roles in this current tactical setup, and the key signings made by Lee, there’s no reason it can’t perform at a high level until then.
NYCFC has a promising tactical base with an output problem, and the Red Bulls have promising output with a tactical problem. Each probably needs a little bit of the other. It will make for an interesting dynamic at Red Bull Arena on Saturday.
New York’s Soccer Success Sets Up Derby
Unlike other sports, New York’s soccer teams have enjoyed relative success in recent times, and looking at the way the respective playoff series are going for the Knicks and Devils following those first-round wins, it might have to pick up the baton once again.
The last New York championship from one of the four more distinctly American major leagues came courtesy of a New York Giants Super Bowl win in February 2012. MLS is often left out of more general major league sports discussions, but since that Giants triumph, the New York Red Bulls have won three Supporters’ Shields and New York City FC has brought the region its first MLS Cup championship win.
The Red Bulls also happen to have the longest active playoff qualification streak in the five American men’s major league sports due to the Pittsburgh Penguins failing to qualify for this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs. The last time the Red Bulls didn’t qualify for the playoffs in 2009, they managed just eight points from their first 11 games – which is also the case this season.
Soccer is currently the sport producing the most success in New York, but both the Red Bulls and City have work on their hands to keep that going. A derby might be the best time for one of them to start.
The Opta Facts
Ahead of the New York derby this weekend, our US data insights team at have put together the key preview facts.
- New York City FC won both MLS editions of the Hudson River Derby against the Red Bulls last season, recording a 1-0 road win and a 2-0 home win after the Red Bulls had won the previous three meetings in all competitions. NYCFC has never won three straight editions of the Hudson River Derby.
- The Red Bulls parted company with Gerhard Struber after taking nine points from their first 11 matches. It marked the fourth time in club history they dismissed their manager within the first 12 matches of a season (E. Firmani – eight games in 1996, M. Johnston – 12 games in 2006, C. Armas – nine games in 2020).
- New York City FC has just two points from its first six road games this season and has managed just two victories in its last 14 regular season away matches dating back to July 2022. This equals the longest NYCFC has gone into a season without an away win, along with its inaugural 2015 season (also six games).
- The Red Bulls have allowed 11 goals in 11 MLS games this season, allowing exactly one goal in nine of those (two goals once, one clean sheet). Of 63 previous teams to allow 1.0 goals per match or fewer through 11 games of the season, the Red Bulls’ nine points are tied for the fewest (LA Galaxy in 1999).
- So far this season, New York City FC has attempted 5344 passes, fourth-most in MLS but only 22.7% of those (1215) have come in the final third, the lowest percentage in the league. The Red Bulls rank 24th in pass attempts (4018) but a league-high 34.8% of those (1398) have been in the attacking third.