Major League Soccer

MLS Cup Playoffs preview: New York Red Bulls

Chris Smith
The Red Bulls made a late surge into the Playoffs.
The Red Bulls made a late surge into the Playoffs. /

For the 12th year in a row, the New York Red Bulls are in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Though they've suffered their fair share of knockout heartbreak, the Red Bulls are regular-season experts. In all honesty, the Playoffs just wouldn't be the same without their unique, chaotic brand of pressing soccer.

So here's everything you need to know about the New York Red Bulls ahead of the post-season - from tactics to key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.

How did New York Red Bulls make it to the MLS Cup Playoffs?

For a while, it looked like we were going to be without the Red Bulls in the post season for the first time since 2009. But then their defense tightened up, the press gained cohesion and, overall, Gerhard Struber's methods began sinking in.

New York enjoyed a run of just one defeat in their final 12 games, with seven clean sheets and six one-goal wins. That came after a stretch of one win in 11. "Fine margins" is the best way to describe the 2021 Red Bulls season.

Gerhard Struber: Tactics and style of play

Struber masterminded a remarkable late turnaround from the Red Bulls.
Struber masterminded a remarkable late turnaround from the Red Bulls. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, Red Bulls press. It's what they're known for, and it's what they're best at. No other team in MLS applied more pressures on the opposition than Struber's side (6,531) and at times, it is a truly spectacular sight to behold.

Struber tends to opt for a 4-2-3-1 formation, giving him a four-man forward line to cut out passes from defense to midfield, while two holding midfielders restrict space behind the opposing striker. Full-backs Kyle Duncan and Andrew Gutman are useful attacking weapons, providing plenty of width and service, while they also do a good job of pinning back their opposite numbers.

To beat the Red Bulls you have to be composed, patient, and extremely precise with the ball. In the heat of a Playoff match, that's easier said than done.

Who are New York Red Bulls' key players?

Cristian Casseres Jr: Cristian Casseres has always been well known for his industry but, this season especially, he's proved he can be a real threat with the ball, too. The Venezuelan hit six goals and three assists during the regular season, ranked third among Red Bulls players for successful dribbles (27), and averaged 0.30 xG+xA per 90 minutes - not bad for a supposed 'holding midfielder'. It's hard to see New York doing much in the Playoffs if Casseres isn't on it.

Kyle Duncan: Chances are this will be Kyle Duncan's last MLS Cup Playoff campaign with Belgian side KV Oostende closing on a deal. So, he'll want to go out with a bang. To do that, he'll just need to repeat the regular season form that saw him top out among Red Bulls players for interceptions (59) and successful dribbles (58), and come second for tackles (146). Duncan is a strong one-on-one defender and tough to deal with when driving into the final third. He'll make things fun at the very least.

Sean Davis: From the fun to the industriously effective, Sean Davis remains such a vital piece in this team. While the likes of Casseres and Dru Yearwood forage further up, Davis is the shield in front of the defense. The one guy who stops the opponent catching the Red Bulls cold when the press fails. But give Davis some credit - he's created more chances (42) than any other player at the club this season. A picture of reliability.

How far can New York Red Bulls go in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

NYRB are in for a real challenge
NYRB are in for a real challenge / Matthew Burt

Whether you're impressed by the Red Bulls' charge to the Playoffs or are left feeling they were a little lucky, you must admit the post season is better for having them.

Their Round One match against the Philadelphia Union should be one hell of a punch-up between two of the most pressing sides in MLS. But when it comes to individual quality, Jim Curtin has more at his disposal than Struber.

Prediction: Round One