The New York Red Bulls entered Sunday's clash with the Los Angeles Galaxy as Major League Soccer's lone unbeaten side.
Sunday's contest at Red Bull Arena was seen as the first major test of the new high-tempo system manager Jesse Marsch installed during preseason.
The Red Bulls dominated the possession battle but left the field wanting more after playing to a 1-1 draw with the defending champions.
Let's take a look at some of the key tactical decisions that shaped the match.
Red Bulls' Press and Tempo Set the Tone
The Red Bulls began the match by putting a ton of pressure on the ball. Whenever a Galaxy player received the ball, a slew of white shirts attacked him and forced the player into a quick decision.
“They didn’t allow us to get comfortable in the back," Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez said. "When I looked up, I saw four or five white shirts sprinting toward me. The only thing that I saw fit to do was play it back to Jamie (Penedo) or up to Gordon and (Jamieson). They did well with that."
When they were in possession of the ball, the two Red Bulls center-backs pinched up toward the halfway line, while the full-backs were looking for space in the attacking half.
However, the high line left the Red Bulls susceptible to counterattacks if the Galaxy timed them to perfection.
The Galaxy got the best of the Red Bulls defense early in the match on a counter, but after that the hosts controlled potential threats well.
Jamieson Breaks Free for LA's Lone Strike
In his second career start, Bradford Jamieson IV scored on a terrific individual effort in the final third.
The New York defense handed Jamieson a ton of space at the start of the move, which allowed the youngster to gain momentum and sprint over to the left side of the box.
All Jamieson had to do after that was fool Chris Duvall and place his shot into the bottom-right corner of the net.
"All I know is that I’m gonna cut the defender," Jamieson said of his thought process leading up to the goal. "I was watching the way (Duvall) was moving his hips, and he came pretty hard, I cut him and I went for the shot. I tried to put it hard into the right corner."
The lone dangerous attacking spurt of the match for the Galaxy exposed some of the flaws in the Red Bulls' new system. Dax McCarty tracked back into the box but reached Jamieson just as he started to cut to his left.
Had McCarty reached the 18-year-old more quickly, he may have been able to shut down the move and keep the momentum on New York's side for good.
"Getting the early goal for them changed the match a bit. It meant that we were pushing and they were sitting back," Marsch said after the match.
New York Opens Up Right Flank for Early Chance
The Red Bulls failed to attack the right flank through the first 11 minutes, but when they finally spread the field out, a terrific chance opened up in front of goal.
Sacha Kljestan moved over to the right wing and darted down that side of the pitch in search of a hole in the Galaxy defense.
He found just that as he breezed past Stefan Ishizaki and fired a cross in toward Bradley Wright-Phillips. The 2014 Golden Boot winner connected with the pass, but Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo was in the right place at the right time.
The 12th-minute move marked one of the few occasions in which New York put pressure on the right flank.
"They had a lot of possession, but we never felt threatened," Gonzalez said. "The one chance with Bradley Wright-Phillips in the beginning was good, but Jaime saved us."
Insistence on Left-Flank Matchup Narrows Field
Marsch said in his post-match press conference that he inserted Sal Zizzo into the starting 11 because he liked the matchup against Galaxy right-back Dan Gargan.
The manager's confidence in Zizzo combined with Lloyd Sam's fitness level to lead the Red Bulls' attack primarily through the left side of the pitch.
"Sal’s been very good in training, and he’s been very good when he’s played for us. We think he’s dynamic and he’s aggressive," Marsch said. "We liked the matchup of Sal versus Gargan."
Although they looked dangerous in the buildup, the Red Bulls left the home fans wanting more through one half of play.
Whenever Zizzo troubled Gargan, Gonzalez tracked over to the wing and denied a potential scoring opportunity. Gonzalez also pointed out that the Galaxy made sure to rough up the host side from the start.
“It was a lot of stop-and-go, but that’s because we were trying to be aggressive and not let them get into a rhythm," Gonzalez said.
The Galaxy game plan worked for the majority of the match, but the Red Bulls were able to create something in the box early in the second half.
Sam Breaks Free and Begins Scoring Move
Sam admitted after the draw that his matchup with former Leeds United teammate Robbie Rogers on the right flank was a difficult one.
“I was just trying to get some space in the game. It was difficult to get space at times," Sam said.
“He had a lot of energy going forward. I would turn around, and he’s already on his way to our box. He’s very lively, and he’s a good technical player. He’s just a bit more physical than he used to be," the winger said of Rogers.
Sam finally got the best of Rogers in the 58th minute when he moved into the middle of the pitch, fought off the defender and passed to Zizzo on the left side of the box.
Zizzo crossed in a ball that Wright-Phillips deflected off A.J. DeLaGarza and on to the head of Felipe, who directed the shot into the net. The lucky deflection off the noggin of Felipe handed New York a deserved equalizer.
"I would give more credit to Felipe on the goal for actually being there," Sam said of the goal.
"(Felipe) covers so much ground, he breaks up so many plays, he’s a connecter, he’s an attacker. His engine is at a very high level. It was another good performance (for him)," Marsch said. "I know he’ll be happy he got on the board, even though it was a weird play."
Both Sides Take Positives from Draw
The Red Bulls were easily the better side on Sunday, but their inability to break down the Galaxy back line is something they'll need to work on for the future.
Despite not finding a second goal, Marsch was happy with the club's overall performance.
“That’s a very good Galaxy team on the field. I thought we controlled the game from the opening whistle, and for 90 minutes I thought we were on top of the match," Marsch said. "Overall, I thought all the little tactical details for us to be on top of the match were good. The guys pushed and pushed and got the equalizer. We were a little bit unlucky not to find the lead.”
“I thought our reactions, awareness and movement as a group were all very good," Marsch said. "In a lot of ways, the first half might be one of our better halves of the season. These are positives. I feel like we continue to move ourselves along."
Gonzalez also expressed his delight with the result, which handed the Galaxy their second road point of the season.
“It’s more than we’ve gotten in the past. To get a point away from home, we were very pleased with it. It’s better than leaving with zero," Gonzalez said. "I thought we all defended well as a team, and that’s one of the reasons why we got the point.”
In the end, the New York pressure did dominate most of the match. But the Red Bulls were up against a well-organized side. For New York to earn wins against other top opponents this season, it will have to spread the field out more and put the defense under more stress. If it can do that against the likes of New England and Columbus in the Eastern Conference, it could be headed for a spot at the top of the East.
As for the Galaxy, they did what they needed to do in order to depart Red Bull Arena with their heads held high. Without Robbie Keane in the lineup, they were unable to attack on the counter as much as they would've liked, but the one clear chance they created was all they needed to score.
Once Keane returns and Steven Gerrard eventually arrives in the summer, the Galaxy will have some battle-tested young guys like Jamieson ready to contribute off the bench.
If he continues to produce like he has in his first two matches, Jamieson will fill that role perfectly toward the end of the year.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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