There are times in soccer where it's very clear that one team has a tactical advantage over another, and that team will keep exploiting that advantage until the team or coaches adjust.
In the first leg, I previewed two very interesting match-ups that I thought would contribute to the result of the first leg. One was the New England Revolution's fullbacks, Chris Tierney and Andrew Farrell shutting down the crosses from New York Red Bulls wingers Lloyd Sam and Thierry Henry. I think for the most part the Revs did well in this case, despite giving up several good chances in the box to center forward Bradley Wright-Phillips. But Revs head coach Jay Heaps made a tremendous tactical decision when Kelyn Rowe was subbed off at the hour-mark due to a injury by putting speedy fullback Kevin Alston on and pushing Chris Tierney higher up the field.
This move cemented the Revs backline by having their two fastest fullbacks on the outside, in particular to deal with Lloyd Sam on the left who had been causing Tierney fits for a majority of the game. With Alston's speed now able to match Sam's down the flank, it took away a major source of the Red Bulls attack in the closing minutes.
On the other side of the field, the Red Bulls holding midfield pair of Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander had effectively shut down New England's center midfielders Lee Nguyen and Jermaine Jones. The bulk of the Revs attack came down the right flank, where Teal Bunbury had a field day against backup Red Bulls leftback Ambroise Oyongo, deputizing for the suspended Roy Miller.
But that all changed with a 75th minute substitution of Alexander for Tim Cahill, which left McCarty more isolated as Tim Cahill moved into a higher position on the field. Then, for the first time all game came the Revolution's first counter attack:
And it was a glorious, perfect storm of how the tactical battle can be won or lost on one play. Tim Cahill, now woefully out of position near the sideline, ends up breaking the entire Red Bulls formation. Rightback Richard Eckersley makes a desperate attempt to claim the ball that Chris Tierney, now playing left midfield, has just flicked on right into the path of Lee Nguyen. Teal Bunbury and Patrick Mullins occupy the three man Red Bulls backline with wide runs while Jermaine Jones attacks the center of the line. The Red Bulls collapse down, and the patient Nguyen calmly finds Bunbury to his right, who then centers seemingly uncontested to a wide open Jones, who slots home the winner.
The Red Bulls defensive shape was eviscerated in typical Revolution fashion on the counter attack, and perhaps a little bit of help from Mike Petke. Matthew Doyle's Armchair Analyst column offers more insight into this play as well as a GIF that does the beginning of the play more justice, and anytime the New York Post is piling on as Mark Cannizzaro does here means that Petke didn't have the best day. But it's understandable, putting on Tim Cahill was perhaps the "we're going for the win" substitution and with that comes the risk of giving up opportunities at the other end.
For the 75 minutes Eric Alexander was on the field, the Revs attack wasn't able to generate much down the middle through either build-up play or a counter-attacker. Even the twenty minutes at the end of regulation and stoppage time, the Revs only generated that one big chance, and they converted. But can the Revs hold on to the advantage that they gained through superior tactics in the first leg?
One of the match-ups I didn't highlight in my first leg preview turned out to be the deciding factor in that first leg, and that was Teal Bunbury down the right flank against Red Bulls leftback Ambroise Oyongo. It was arguably one of Bunbury's best games for the Revs this year, after a less than spectacular start to the season where he featured as a lone striker, Bunbury has found a home on the wing. He's been praised for his defensive and two-way effort for much of the second half of the year and with Lee Nguyen running the show in the middle, Bunbury is often reduced to a supporting role in the Revs' attack.
During the playoffs however, he's been a force. He set up the Revolution's first goal in their second leg matchup against the Crew, after Jay Heaps made another masterful tactical change by switching him to Kelyn Rowe's usual left side before capping the scoring with late strike in the 3-1 win. His unselfish pass to Jones on the counter-attack gave the Revs their first win at Red Bull Arena after he opened the scoring with a magnificent left-footed blast in the first half. With two goals and two assists during the Revolution's three playoff games this season, Teal is proving to be every bit the attacking player fans knew he could be when the Revs traded for him at the beginning of the year.
But while Bunbury might be able to carry over his advantage on Oyongo, the Revs are going to have to deal with a slightly different look from the Red Bulls attacking front. With Wright-Phillips suspended due to yellow card accumulation, Mike Petke will have to figure out not only who replaces him in the starting lineup, but how to deploy his frontline. Our own Nick Hemming discussed the possible options earlier this week, and Tim Cahill is the likely replacement in the lineup but I think we'll see Theirry Henry up front as the lone striker.
What does this mean for the Revolution? Well, the Revs fullbacks still have to deny service to Henry out wide, but Henry isn't the target forward that BWP is, so the entire backline will now be tasked with tracking the crafty Henry as he looks to work and create off of the other Red Bull attackers. Henry will not just sit in the box and wait for service to come to him, he'll maneuver around the final third looking for the ball and to work combinations with his teammates to open the Revs backline. Peguy Luyindula and Lloyd Sam were absolute handfuls all game in the first leg and I expect more of the same from those two as they can both create and provide service from the right and center respectfully.
Cahill will offer more of a direct threat at times down the left flank, something that Andrew Farrell struggled at times with in the middle of the season but he's been very solid defensively of late. Cahill is also know for moving around a lot and has an impressive work rate so that element of unpredictability can be hard to deal with when it works for the Red Bulls. When it doesn't, well, you saw the results when the Revs hit back on the counter. The Revs for the most part were disciplined and organized against the Red Bulls in the first leg, and while New York was woeful in front of goal for the most part, they still were able to generate excellent chances in front of goal.
Likewise, the Revs were also able to create opportunities of their own, including Jermaine Jones cancelling out an earlier BWP miss with a header from close range in the second half. The Revs will have to figure out ways to get Lee Nguyen more involved in the second leg to keep the pressure on the Red Bulls throughout the match but if McCarty and Alexander play anywhere near the same as they did in the first leg that will remain a tough task.
But the Revolution have the advantage on the scoreboard and in momentum, and they're not known for sitting back and defending their lead. They went out and piled it on against Columbus at home in the second leg and there's no reason to think they won't try and do the same thing to New York tomorrow.