The Eastern Conference semi-finals between the New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls is going to be nothing short of an epic battle. Standing between the Revolution and the Final is a Red Bull attack that is spearheaded by Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry.
With Lee Nguyen, Jermaine Jones, Charlie Davies and a few others in fine form, finding goals against an inconsistent Red Bull defense shouldn't be the biggest task for Heaps' men. The biggest task is stopping those two names, and doing so will be absolutely critical if the Revolution want to progress any further.
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Wright-Phillips has developed an insatiable appetite for goals this year, tying the regular season goal scoring record with 27, and adding three more in the postseason taking his total to 30. A striker this prolific is obviously a problem for any team, no matter what the game plan is to stop them. He has shown that he can score goals in a number of ways, such as using his speed to get in behind, in the air with his head, and on any sort of rebound that falls to him in and around the box.
How does one stop him? Cut out the service. Wright-Phillips is never going to receive the ball 30-plus yards away from goal and run at the defense with skill and pace - sprawling defenders on the floor in a "Messi-like" manner en route to thoroughly embarrass the goalkeeper. Instead, he relies on his teammates to set him up, so limiting the playmakers around him is paramount.
As for Henry, the French dynamo may be 37, but anyone would be hard-pressed to find someone who wants to win an MLS cup more, as this could very well be his last season. Even though he has refused to play on turf his whole career, it is very possible that he will play in New England for the second-leg if needed. With a blend of pure class and skill, Henry has taken on the role of a playmaker this year, often dropping deep and playing in a supporting role behind Wright-Phillips. So just how are you supposed to defend them both in the same match? Its tough and the Revolution have failed to do so twice this year. But in theory, the typical 4-2-3-1 scheme Heaps uses might be the best solution.
Jay Heaps and Co. will have to rely on tactics, communication and passionate defending to slow the two down. It also means that there is going to be extra pressure put on the defensive midfielder, most likely in the form of Scott Caldwell. Caldwell, who has been spotty at times over the season, is coming off some strong performances that proved he can, in fact, give the midfield a defensive presence.
Against the Crew, Caldwell did enough to shut down Federico Higuain - who operates centrally, and whose movement is less offensively dynamic than Henry. Defending against Henry, though, Caldwell is going to have to cover more ground in the middle and track back further, as Henry likes to run at defenders and get to the line, unlike a pure playmaker like Higuain. However, covering lots of ground does not match Caldwell's strengths as a player, so expect Jermaine Jones to have an increased defensive role. Collectively, Their job is going to be centered on limiting the time Henry has on the ball, making sure he can't split the sometimes lethargic back line of the Revs. The defense, led by Jose Goncalves and A.J. Soares, needs to be in constant communication with the midfield, sorting out when to press and when to track runners.
This match-up between Henry, Wright-Phillips and the Revolution defense is just one of the many battles we are going to see. What do you envision to be the key to stopping them? Or does the key to the game lie elsewhere?