The Montreal Impact are currently last place in the Eastern Conference and are looking for a huge win this Saturday vs the New York Red Bulls at Stade Saputo. The Red Bulls are currently in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and have been playing great soccer as of late.
1. Montreal knocked out the Red Bulls last season in the playoffs, since then what has changed for the Red Bulls?
Quite a lot. The team has a new sporting director - Denis Hamlett has replaced Ali Curtis - and a new captain: Sacha Kljestan has the armband now, and Dax McCarty is in Chicago. And Jesse Marsch has transformed. For his first two seasons with the Red Bulls, he was a coach who stuck doggedly to a preferred formation and starters, and seemed to have one talking point: trust the system.
In fairness to him, the basic system hasn't changed, but Marsch has: he's now an inveterate tactical tinkerer, tweaking lineups almost every game, rotating the squad to the point where it's a surprise if the weekly list of starters doesn't have a surprise in it, and changing formations so often the team's Twitter account no longer bothers to even try to predict how the players will line up.
There are all sorts of reasons for this, including a string of injuries, but at least part of the method behind the madness is that traumatic experience in the playoffs. The Red Bulls' system of play has been a strength for the last two years, but its weakness is its predictability. The team was always vulnerable to an opponent willing to play a neutralizing tactic: cede possession and play for the counter-attack. Montreal did that very well in the playoffs, twice. And the lesson the Red Bulls appear to have taken away from that experience is they must be less predictable.
They also want to be successful at things like scoring goals and winning games, and progress on those fronts has been fitful so far this season. But the team can no longer be accurately described as predictable. Indeed, judging by the wayward passing that has plagued the Red Bulls for much of the start of this season, even the players don't seem to be entirely sure what to expect of themselves or each other.
2. Last season Bradley Wright-Phillips won the MLS Golden Boot but this season currently sits at 23rd on the MLS goal scorers list, what has changed in his game that sees him scoring less this season or what has caused him to score less.
He hasn't changed a great deal, but the team invested a lot of time and effort earlier in the year in a formation that didn't really play to BWP's strengths. The 4-2-2-2 set-up wasn't designed to stifle BWP, but you'd find it hard to devise a more effective way of limiting him. With a striker whose greatest strengths are off-the-ball movement and reading space of the field, the Red Bulls played a narrow formation that asked BWP to take a lot more touches, often with his back to goal. And, unsurprisingly, he doesn't score as often when he's playing more as a set-up man than a pure striker.
He has scored at such an extraordinary rate for RBNY that even a few games without a goal makes it feel like his form has dropped precipitously. But he's still RBNY's top scorer and most consistent scoring threat this season. The team isn't producing in the attacking third the way it would like to, and that is mostly down to a failure to master its own tactics and sub-par passing and movement across the front four. But of the key players in the attack at the moment, I'd say BWP has been consistently closest to the level expected of him. Unfortunately, he hasn't always had the support he needs to be effective.
Ultimately, the Red Bulls sort of want his scoring to drop off this season. The team has brought in new faces to the attack - like Fredrik Gulbrandsen and Homegrown player Derrick Etienne - and the ideal is to have a true attacking quartet on the field at any one time, with four legitimate scoring threats playing off each other and around the opposing defense. It hasn't worked out that way yet this season, but if BWP has 15 goals and the team has 60+ at the end of the year, I think Marsch will say that was more or less the plan.
3. The Red Bulls currently sit in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, do you think they will maintain a playoff spot or become a non-playoff team in the second half of the season?
I expect the team to hold on to a playoff spot. The team expects itself to make the playoffs.
The Red Bulls have already suggested there is no ambition to win the Supporters' Shield this year (though I'm sure no one would refuse it if offered): it's all eyes on MLS Cup. So to fail to make the playoffs would be a failure. There's no excuse for a team that won the Eastern Conference the last two years (and in three of the last four, for that matter) to suddenly drop to seventh or worse in the standings.
Experimentation and a few missteps likely does mean RBNY ducks out of the Shield race before it even gets started. And maybe it slips in and out of the playoff spots or drops points unexpectedly while exploring some new formation or personnel switch. But if the team misses the playoffs, it will have failed to meet the one target it has openly set for itself this year. And really the minimum to be able to call a season in MLS even partially successful is to make the post-season. The Red Bulls want to be judged on their playoff performance this year, it seems, and I think a lot of fans will give them that wish - but the judgment will be very harsh if RBNY doesn't make the top six in the East.
Luis Robles; Kemar Lawrence, Damien Perrinelle, Aaron Long, Michael Amir Murillo; Sean Davis, Felipe; Daniel Royer, Sacha Kljestan, Alex Muyl; Bradley Wright-Phillips
I think the team is coming to Montreal to not lose, more than anything. Calling it 1-1.