As I settled into my seat in the perfectly situated Red Bull Arena press box to watch the home team take on cross-river rivals New York City FC on a perfect Saturday afternoon my thoughts turned to my father.
Why? Allow me to explain. Quite a few years ago my father came to this country from Ireland where he was a renowned athlete, a Gaelic footballer. This was long before Sky TV, ESPN, before a lot of things, actually. Which is to say that he hadn’t a clue about American football when a friend brought him along to Yankee Stadium to watch the New York Football Giants take on the Chicago Bears.
What does this have to do with the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC you may well ask? I thought of my father on Saturday afternoon because of what I call, “The Butkus Technique.” My father, ever the sportsman, was happy to get a look at this strange new game and was especially anxious to check out the Bear’s fearsome linebacker, Dick Butkus – I said it was a long time ago.
Like I said, the sport of American football was all but unknown to my father, but he had heard of Butkus, so on that afternoon way back when he concentrated his gaze on big number 51 in dark blue.
On Saturday last, I made it my mission to adapt and adopt this strategy in order to focus on the midfield battle between New York City FC’s 19-year-old Venezuelan Yangel Herrera and the Red Bulls Tyler Adams, one year younger.
The pair had faced off just a few weeks earlier in the quarterfinals of the U20 World Cup in South Korea. The South Americans dominated that day with only Jonathan Klinsmann’s Tim Howard v. Belgium impersonation keeping the match goalless until the 97th minute in a game Venezuela would win 2-1.
Adams was long gone by then, substituted in the 51st minute. Adams looked tired that day, the indefatigable midfielder finally laid low, it seemed to me, by the compact tournament schedule more so than Herrera or any of his opponents.
Herrera was excellent in that game and would be recognized as the third best player in the tournament as his nation fell to England 1-0 in the Championship match.
With the soccer/football world watching both players had raised their stock but now it was back to earning a paycheck and producing for their MLS clubs. With Herrera still recovering from his U20 World Cup exertions, the Big Apple rivals met at on June 14th at Red Bull Arena and Adams was his tigerish self as the Bulls hung a 1-0 U.S. Open Cup victory on the Bronx side, whetting the appetite for the rematch 10 days later at the same venue.
At close quarters it is hard not to note that at 6’0” Herrera towers over the 5’8” Adams and while size is not meant to matter in the beautiful game it often does in some of the game’s less picturesque moments.
To the match, then. Herrera was on the ball early, pressing Red Bulls fullback Kemar Lawrence into a turnover. The rangy Venezuelan started a NYC attack before drawing a foul just outside the home team’s 18-yard box. Given the freedom of the pitch by coach Patrick Vieira, who rated the youngster highly enough to sit Italian legend Andrea Pirlo in his stead, it was quickly apparent that Herrera would be a problem for the Red Bulls on this day.
Adams was slower to find the game but then he was being used in a different role by his coach Jesse Marsch. Adams, who passed on attending his High School graduation for this game, was playing deeper than Herrera, although he did get forward to fire high over Luis Robles’ goal on one rare up field foray.
Adams was effective winning balls and making the simple pass to teammates like Felipe and Sacha Kljestan. The teens were not directly marking one another although they did go toe to toe on numerous occasions. Herrera had the edge in most of those showdowns and Adams picked up a couple of fouls, although I thought the calls were a bit harsh.
In a scrappy start to the match referee Alan Kelly handed out three yellow cards before the half and would issue six before he was done. Neither Adams or Herrera was cautioned, which is not to say the teens were shying away from the trenches.
Herrera, in fact, seemed to relish the chance to get under opponents skin and was involved in several off the ball scuffles, including one with his former U20 World Cup opponent.
The matchup ended when Adams was pulled by Marsch in the 82nd minute with NYC up 2-0. Adams hadn’t played poorly but as in the U20 match Herrera was on the better team on the day and like in South Korea, Herrera was a big reason why his team was the better team.
So, what did viewing this math through the lens of the Butkus technique reveal? First, both are talented young players with bright futures but Manchester City property Herrera is ahead of Adams at the moment. The Venezuelan’s physicality is part of his edge over Adams but there is also a maturity to Herrera’s game that belies his youth.
Watching Herrera engage in scraps with New York’s midfielders Kljestan and Felipe was instructive as he caused the Red Bulls vets to lash out with a push or a shove while Herrera remained nonplussed.
That attitude along with his toughness, ability to cover ground, to deliver a range of passes, and create danger at the offensive end show Herrera as a player on the rise.
Adams is asked to play a different role with the Red Bulls, deferring to Kljestan and Felipe while Herrera, particularly with Maxi Moralez out injured for NYC, is less inclined to step back. In South Korea Adams showed that he has similar box to box skills to his rival but those skills may need a little more time to incubate.