Going into a game against one of the top attacks in Major League Soccer with three of your starting four players on the back line out of the lineup is not what Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch was planning on tonight.
And yet he doesn’t seem all that worried.
“We’ve actually benefitted from having to call on a lot of different guys, so that when we need them and when they need to step on the field they know their roles and that they step on the field with confidence, and that part’s been good,” Marsch said. “We’re in another moment where we need to test our depth, but I expect Karl (Ouimette) and Anthony (Wallace) to step on the field and be ready to go.”
Twenty-year-old Matt Miazga will be the lone starter on the back line when the second-place Red Bulls (10-6-6) host fourth-place Toronto FC (9-9-4) in a key Eastern Conference matchup at Red Bull Arena.
Connor Lade has stepped in well at right back for Chris Duvall, who is likely done for the season after breaking his leg in a U.S. Open Cup game against the New York Cosmos July 1. Ouimette will start in the center in place of Damien Perrinelle, who was given a two-game suspension by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for a swipe at the face of New York City FC’s Jefferson Mena, and Wallace will fill in for Kemar Lawrence, who has a slight hamstring issue.
“I thought it was a little harsh, given I didn’t think the action was that egregious,” Marsch said of the Perrinelle suspension. “I understand the hands to the face part, which can often warrant a one-game suspension, but that’s the disciplinary committee’s decision.”
Marsch said even with the suspension and the injuries, the Red Bulls have confidence in their bench and in the way they play.
“We don’t change our approach ever. We do tilt our tactics to now address what we’re dealing with on the other team and what we emphasize,” he said. “Certainly we’ll have to tilt things to take care of (Sebastian) Giovinco and know that we’ll have to adjust certain things that we do, especially when we have the ball, and to make sure he’s not running in space and going in one-on-one situations.”
Giovinco, Toronto FC’s 5-foot-4 wizard, has 16 goals and 11 assists this season, second in the league in both categories, and is a leading candidate for MVP in his first season in MLS. Giovinco, who came up through the Juventus youth system, has one goal in 21 appearances for the Italian national team.
But it’s not just Giovinco the Red Bulls need to worry about. He is partnered up front with former Red Bull Jozy Altidore (7 goals) and both have Michael Bradley feeding them passes in an attacking midfield role. The three have enabled Toronto FC to score 37 goals, third in the league behind the Galaxy and the Crew.
“Jozy is strong and is going to hold up the ball, and Giovinco is going to run off it and get into tight spaces and try to receive balls to his feet and on the run,” Miazga said. “We just have to be mindful where they are at all times, but we will continue our pressing system. Everyone knows their roles so it’s no different than any other game.”
Since the Red Bulls midfield also has its defensive responsibilities, Mike Grella will have a hand in bottling up Giovinco, who will move around the field to find space and defensive mismatches.
“We have to be well aware of him,” Grella said. “I’m a huge Juventus fan and I watched him for a lot years over in Italy. He’s very fast. He’s quick, he’s smart, he can shoot with both feet. He’s like a withdrawn striker. We have to keep an eye on him at all times, but we have to still do what we want to do, play the game we want to play and implement we want to implement, but keeping an eye on him and making sure that he’s kept quiet.”
Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty will also be asked to keep track of Giovinco.
“He’s been very important, probably one of the best players in the league, if not THE best player in the league,” McCarty said. “I think he accounts for like 70 or 80 percent of their goals. It’s something ridiculous like that. He’s by far the most dangerous player the league, certainly for them he’s a big part of the success and what they do going forward in the attacking end of the field.
“It’s a huge challenge for us. We haven’t played them this year but we know what they’re all about. We’ve seen a couple of their games. We know he’s going to be a big threat. No matter how much you try to contain him and stop him you can only do so much. It’s a real group effort, it’s a team effort. It’s not just the defenders that have to do a good job on him, it’s the entire team. It’s a big challenge to have to defend against him, but it’s not just him. He’s got a lot of help around him in Michael Bradley and Jozy.”
Marsch marvels not only at what Giovinco can do, but what he has accomplished this season without seeing a lot of the ball.
“One of the things that’s amazing is how productive he is given how few touches he has in the game,” the coach said. “In some games he’s limited to as few as 20 touches per game, so it’s not about quantity as much as it’s about the quality. He gets the ball and he’s dangerous, he’s on the move, he’s good at setting up his right foot, but if you dive in he’s good at cutting back to his left or collect fouls and finish free kicks and penalties. It’s a full package of danger. We have to be hard on him and yet we also have to deal with him in numbers and not let guys get stuck in one-v-one situations.”
After the Toronto game, the Red Bulls will have 10 days off until they play the Chicago Fire Aug. 26 in Bridgeview, Ill. That makes this game even more important considering the Red Bulls are just five points ahead of Toronto in the standings.
“More than anything, this is a big game in their season,” Marsch said. “We played each other a couple of times in the preseason, we got a taste for each other a little bit there. Obviously it’s our first matchup during the year. I have a lot of respect for how they played this year and Giovinco is very dangerous. They know that they need to come here and figure out a way to get points. As much energy as we put into the last match we’ve got to find a way to recharge the batteries and go out there again because in many ways it’s a bigger game in terms of the table.”
With a full week to train, new designated player Gonzalo Veron has had some time to adjust to the way the Red Bulls play. Marsch feels Veron, and recent signing Shaun Wright-Phillips, are ready for more playing time.
“I’m trying to integrate them in the right way and not take away from what we’ve also established as a team,” he said. “It’s always a challenge in the mid-summer break, in the midterm here, when you do pick up important players you have a balanced way into introducing them into what’s going on. If we were struggling more, then maybe there’d be a stronger emphasis to get them on the field, but because we’ve been in a good way it’s important to continue to honor the group and honor what’s been happening and know that they can only add as time goes on. Just being smart is going to be important for their success and the team’s success.”