BULLS RUN: MIAZGA EXCELS IN STARTING ROLE

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One of the biggest quandaries Jesse Marsch had to answer when he took over as head coach was what he was going to do with his starting center backs.

After trading away Jamison Olave and waiving Armando, the Red Bulls were left with new signings Ronald Zubar and Damien Perrinelle, veterans of foreign leagues, but untested in MLS. They also had young Matt Miazga, a talented but raw 20-year-old who only had eight first-team appearances to his name before the 2015 season.

Marsch was forced to throw Miazga into the fire after a hamstring injury to Zubar forced the Dutch defender to the sidelines in the season opener against Sporting KC. With little choice, Marsch had to keep faith in the Clifton, NJ native.

The results have been better than anyone could have expected. Miazga has been a standout for the Red Bulls during the 2015 season and is garnering worldwide attention. His latest performance against NYCFC striker David Villa was one of sheer class. Miazga and Perrinelle managed to subdue Villa and kept him off the scoresheet.

The challenge of going up against a top-class forward like Villa was one Miazga thoroughly enjoyed.

“It’s a great experience, obviously,” he said after the Red Bulls’ 2-0 win over their local rivals Sunday, August 9. “[Villa is] a world-renowned player. You have to be aware of him at all times. Every time [I face] a new forward from MLS, it’s a goal of mine to shut them down.”

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He’s been shutting down plenty of forwards this season and has been critical to the Red Bulls’ success. His absence due to his involvement with the US Under-21 National Team at the World Youth Cup coincided with the Red Bulls’ season-long, four-game losing streak. Since his return from international duty, the Red Bulls are 6-1-1 and find themselves well positioned to make a run for the Supporters’ Shield.

Advanced statistics showcase Miazga’s strengths as well. According to Whoscored.com, the 6-foot-3 center back leads all players in average defensive clearances per game with 7.7. His aerial prowess makes him such a vital cog for the Red Bulls’ defense and he rarely loses a duel with an opposing striker when the ball is in the air.

His athletic ability, coupled with his game intelligence that is well beyond his years, has even made him a target for European clubs. Earlier this year, Premier League club Swansea City was rumored to be interested in a swap for the defender in exchange for veteran midfielder Leon Britton. While nothing materialized, Miazga is certainly on the radar for some of Europe’s top teams.

While a move to Europe might be in his future, Miazga is just concerned about doing his best for the Red Bulls at the moment.

“We’re moving up the table and we’re [targeting] first place,” he said. “I think that’s the goal. We’re looking at first place and we have a few games in hand. Hopefully we get a few more wins and take first place.”

A LOOK AHEAD: RED BULLS VS. TORONTO FC SATURDAY

Red Bulls Toronto FC
10-6-6 (36 Points) Record 9-9-4 (31 Points)
W-1
Streak L-1
6-2-2 (Home) Home/Road Record 4-3-6 (Road)
2nd Conference Position 4th
35 Goals 37
1.59 Goals Per Game 1.68
25 Goals Allowed 38
1.13 Goals Allowed Per Game 1.72
Bradley Wright-Phillips (10) Top Goal Scorer Sebastian Giovinco (16)
Bradley Wright-Phillips (6) Assists Sebastian Giovinco (11)

The Red Bulls face another star-laden roster Saturday, as they take on Toronto FC at Red Bull Arena. Live coverage gets under way at 6:30 PM on MSG.

There’s always hesitation to praise star signings from Europe when they come over to MLS, but Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco is one that no one can argue with. The former Juventus star has taken the league by storm and ranks second in goals (16) and third in assists (11). Diminutive but tenacious, the 5-foot-4 Giovinco has thrived in a forward role alongside former Red Bull Jozy Altidore and is a candidate for MLS’ MVP award this season.

“Giovinco is just a different type of beast,” Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said after practice Thursday. “He’s a guy that can score a goal in so many different ways. He’s such a small guy, he’s so shifty, nifty and quick. I don’t think there’s a tougher player to guard one-on-one in the league right now.”

The key battle will be in midfield where McCarty will be face to face against US Men’s National Team star Michael Bradley. Strong, athletic and skilled in all areas, Bradley will provide a tough test for the Red Bulls as well.

“Michael does so many little things to help their team in terms of how he closes the ball the down,” Marsch said. “How he wins the ball back, the ground he covers, the kind of passer he is, how he distributes the ball, the joining in late in the box. He’s dangerous, sharp and good defensively.”

Still, the Red Bulls remain highly confident going into Saturday’s match. As long as they keep it tight at the back, they believe they’ll leave the pitch with three points.

“We’re in a good moment right now,” McCarty said. “The way we defend, the way we attack, we want to make teams adjust to us. We’re definitely going to be aware of their dangerous players and make sure defensively that we’re sound because I think that’s the starting point for us.”

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