This is a week Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch has his cars under the tarp. You know those guys. They own those shiny, expensive sports cars. They take perfect care of them and only take them out once a week for show, or to cruise around town, then quickly put them back in the garage – under wraps – until the following weekend.
With no game last week, there was no need to have his players firing on all cylinders and ready to play. He’ll save that for this weekend, when the Eastern Conference Final series against the Crew begins Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s funny, all year, internally, I’ve described them as, like, Ferraris,” Marsch said about his players. “And we’re just trying to every week tune them up the right way to give them what they need so that come Sunday they can in every way be ready to go full throttle. And then recovering early in the week and giving them enough training and getting them revved up again and fine-tuning them again, and the next Sunday putting them out there to go full throttle again.
“And so, for the most part, that’s been a recipe for success for us. Our players have managed themselves really well physically and they know that at this time of year that everything, from how much they sleep, to how they eat, to what they do in their down time, is all very important to give themselves the best opportunity to perform in these big games.”
And the biggest games are coming, so Marsch scaled down training last week, especially with defenders Matt Miazga, Kemar Lawrence and Karl Ouimette away on international duty, and will ramp things up again this week.
“I’ve been really happy with the two days of training (last week),” Marsch said. “I think they’ve looked really sharp, they look fresh. Overall, it’s been two of our better sessions of the year. So far, so good. Now it’s just trying to manage them physically so that we don’t put anybody in risk of injury.
“It’s pretty easy to see with the naked eye that they look fresh and that mentally and physically that they’re excited, they know where we are in the season and they’re ready to go.”
Marsch expects no problems getting the team’s edge back when the three players return following the second round of World Cup qualifying on Tuesday. In the first round on Friday, Miazga, making his U.S. debut, played the final 26 minutes in the Americans’ 6-1 rout of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Lawrence played 90 minutes for Jamaica in a 2-0 loss to Panama and Ouimette played 90 minutes for Canada in a 1-0 victory over Honduras.
“We’re trying to keep track of them physically, see what training’s like, see how they’re feeling to make sure on all levels that, physically, they’re being managed the right way,” Marsch said. “It’s a challenge of this time of year, that’s for sure. Columbus has four guys (on international duty), we only have three, so it’s a challenge for both teams right now.
“They’re going to be missing some important guys, so are we, but what will be important is when they get back that we get them up to speed and that everyone’s clear on scouting and the game plan and that when we step on the field on Sunday that we’re all on the same page.”
Midfielder Dax McCarty also sees a seamless transition back to MLS play.
“I don’t think it (will be) tough,” he said. “We’re at probably month 10 in the season now. We’ve been training with each other throughout the entire season. We know exactly what our team is about. We know those players. If anything, it will go and give them confidence. It’s Matt’s first call-up and hopefully it gives him confidence to come back and do even better than he’s been doing.
“Kemar has been the same throughout the whole year. He’s come back and he had a break during the summer after the Gold Cup because he was a little tired. He’s come back and looked refreshed. These are always big opportunities for individual players. I don’t think it will be an issue at all.”
It’s an even better situation for Ouimette, who has only played 13 minutes in the past 13 games, including the playoff series against D.C. United. He hadn’t played a full game for the Red Bulls since Aug. 15 vs. Toronto FC.
Ouimette could be a key player down the road considering MIazga and Ronald Zubar carry over yellow cards from the D.C. United series.
“We’ll have the same approach as last game, which is to be cautiously aggressive or aggressively cautious, which ever combination you want to use,” Marsch said. “It’s a big challenge as a starting point just for our center backs just to play against a guy like (the Crew’s Kei) Kamara. He’s so physically gifted and he’s such a threat in a lot of different ways. He can strike a ball, he’s fast, so he can get on the end of things. He’s good in the box, he’s good in the air, so it’s a big challenge.
“That’s a big part of this series, our ability to manage moments specifically when they get wide of keeping track of runners in the box, and certainly keeping track of where Kamara is at different times.”
“The guy in front, he’s good on the ball, he’s good in the air and he scores goals,” Zubar said. “We have to look at him and be prepared to compete for 90 minutes and more, in extra time. They scored against Montreal in extra time (in the Eastern Conference semifinals). We have to be tight on him, but not too much because he’s an intelligent guy. If you play tight on him he can spin.
I think I did a good job against him (in the regular season) but now it’s playoff time and it’s big games and it’s a different atmosphere. … Anything can happen.”
Zubar also downplayed his new partnership with Miazga. Both played at extended times this season but rarely with each other. There didn’t seem to be an issue in the second leg against D.C. United.
“I’m always ready to play with anybody. I don’t mind really,” he said. “The main thing for us is talking on the field. We talked with Jesse about it. Unfortunately this week he is not here for us but good for him. He is with the national team. We wish he was here because we could work more this week, but we have no time. He’ll come back and we’ll just make sure we are ready for next Sunday.
“We have to step on the field and make sure we are aggressive in a good way and not cross a line, and I think we did a pretty good job of it. It’s important to talk a lot during the game because … it will help you out. We have to put ourselves in a good situation all the time, stay in the field, don’t dive in too much, but once the game starts I don’t think about it. I just play my game.”
Marsch also said that forward Anatole Abang will be available for the conference final against the Crew but that Shaun Wright-Phillips is day to day with a hamstring injury.
Whether Wright-Phillips plays Sunday may be a question, but Marsch has other Ferraris he can drive out of the showroom. At this point, it’s all about who’s tuned up and ready to go.