The Columbus Crew and the New York Red Bulls will meet for the first of three meetings this year going in different directions. The Crew started the season with three consecutive wins, but have been unable to collect all three points in their previous three outings. The Red Bulls didn't find their first win until their seventh game of the season, but have now won two in a row, including a 4-0 shellacking of the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday.
Dan Dickinson and I talked about these two teams in order to give readers an inside perspective.
Questions for Gothamist
Massive Report: After a slow start over the first six games, the Red Bulls have started to get on track with wins in the last two. What has been the biggest change from those opening games in comparison with the last two?
Gothamist: All of New York's wins have come on a Wednesday, so expect the team to move all games to Wednesday going forward.
No, but seriously, it's a mentality shift more than anything. The Red Bulls strung together a huge unbeaten streak at the end of last year when there was a true team mentality: everyone has their role in attack, everyone has their role in defense, and everyone knows when they have to cover for each other. For some reason they didn't start this year with that same mentality, but it's returned, and you could see it in the Houston game. You see Henry tracking back to help defend when necessary, you see the fullbacks crossing into the attack, and you see the team forcing turnovers and generating attacks out of the midfield. Finally, it seems to all be clicking - for now, at least
MR: Everyone knows the names Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, but what have players like Lloyd Sam, Roy Miller, and Eric Alexander brought to the table to make this a complete team?
G: For those players specifically: Sam has been electric this year, giving the team the speed and pace that they had with Dane Richards years ago, but with tangible skill on the ball. When Eric Alexander is on form, he is terrifyingly good: crisp passing, strong dribbling, and great vision. (When he's not on form, he's invisible, so he's a mixed blessing.) And Roy Miller takes a lot of stick from the NY fans for his mental meltdowns over the year (own goal + legendary free kick in the 2012 playoffs; encroaching in San Jose last year), but he is lethal coming up into the attack.
One other name to not sleep on is Luis Robles. I'm not sure how he's not in the conversation for the national team, but he's head and shoulders above the likes of Hamid and Johnson when it comes to shot stopping. He's kept RBNY competitive this year each and every game.
MR: Both the Crew and the Red Bulls have former players, both center backs, as head coaches. What have been your impressions of Mike Petke as a head coach? How has he blended the elite talent with the other players on the team and handled the New York pressure?
G: As Mike Petke famously declared in a media apology last year: "You knew me as a player..." Mike is as he has always been: a fiery and colorful personality. And that serves him well because it gives him the ability to deal with other large personalities in the locker room, like Henry. His tactical sense is growing (Robin Fraser probably deserves more credit than he gets), and he seems a little more at ease this year than he did last year. But he puts himself under as much pressure as anyone, and is very single-minded on preparing for the next game. He's a pretty wound up guy.
Questions for Massive Report
Gothamist: Is Columbus for real? It's still early but Columbus is one of the few teams posting a winning record. Is there an expectation this will hold up through the year, or is there a fear this may be a FC Dallas-2013 style anomaly?
Massive Report: I think the Crew are riding a high right now that would be difficult to sustain. Beginning with Toronto FC, teams have realized if they can get an early lead on Columbus, they can sit back and allow the Black and Gold to possess the ball in front of them. Recent opponents have forced the Crew wide and used big physical defenders to clear away crosses. Head Coach Gregg Berhalter believes they can combat this and continue to get results, but the last three weeks have not looked as promising the same as the opening three.
With that said, this is a team that should challenge for a playoff spot. I don't know if they can continue the early season results consistently, but they should be able to get enough results to at least make a run at the end of the season.
G: The Crew had more turnover than most teams this offseason, losing names like Andy Gruenebaum and Chad Marshall, and bringing in folks like Michael Parkhurst and Hector Jimenez. Who of the new faces has impressed the most, and who from the departures is the team missing the most?
MR: I think the most obvious is Parkhurst who has been very solid along the back line. He is not a like-for-like replacement for Marshall, but he fits into Berhalter's scheme perfectly with his ability to shift out wide. He has been good in his tackles and he will be missed if he makes the United States World Cup team.
Two other names are Jimenez and defender Waylon Francis. Jimenez has great positioning and movement and has helped create offense for this team. He has been the perfect replacement for the now retired Eddie Gaven, who was the team's biggest loss in my eyes. Francis has been a solid player at left back. He may not be the best defender in the league, but he his athletic ability allow him to get forward and back with ease and he can hurt teams with his overlapping runs.
G: How would you rate the Precourt era thus far off the field? It was a big ownership change, and I know there was a lot of concern about the TV deal.
MR: I think the Precourt era couldn't have started off much better. Obviously Crew fans were disappointed with the local TV deal (a contract that was announced last minute and allows only those who have Time Warner the opportunity to watch home or away games), but I think much of the anger has subsided at this point. The players continue to point to a different feeling around this team than previous years and really appreciate what Anthony Precourt has done (new scoreboard, new locker rooms, new player lounge at the training facility, etc.). It is apparent that he is invested in this team and city and wants to be involved in what goes on. I think this franchise needed something fresh after the Hunt Sports Group had gone stale on Columbus and Precourt has certainly brought that to town.