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5 things to watch as Red Bulls return from international break to face Nashville SC

Sean Davis of the Red Bulls takes a

Sean Davis of the Red Bulls takes a corner kick during the second half against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park on April 25, 2021 in Carson, California. Credit: Getty Images/Meg Oliphant

It will be nearly three weeks between matches when the Red Bulls host Nashville SC on Friday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, the first meeting between the clubs. Here are a few things to keep an eye on following the international break:

1. Maintaining a new standard

The Red Bulls played at perhaps their highest level yet under Gerhard Struber in a 2-1 win over Orlando City last time out, convincing an elated Struber his players could handle the league’s top competition. Of course, Struber has had to wait for the last few weeks to see if that hypothesis is accurate. The Austrian said the club used the break to "train the basics" and stayed sharp with a friendly against DC United.

"I think especially after Orlando, everyone can feel our new level, our new standards," Struber said Wednesday. "Right now, we have to bring a good focus, a good concentration in the big game on Friday against a very good team and I hope everyone finds your personal trigger for the next step."

As important as that concentration remains, Struber seemed pleased to see his players get some time to recharge.

"I think the last few months was very, very strong from the physical side, and also of what I expect from every single player from the mental side and the tactical side. I think this was a big load for everyone," Struber said. "Right now, we use the time in a good way with individual coaching, with analysis, with individual training sessions … I think the training weeks show me a very good attitude and that we’ve become embedded in our style of play. We have to show this on Friday."

2. Missing Cásseres

Midfielder Cristian Cásseres Jr. remains abroad with the Venezuelan national team in Copa América. The 21-year-old, who scored a free kick in RBNY’s win over Orlando, started in Venezuela’s 3-0 loss to Brazil on Sunday and figures to be a key piece for the squad throughout the tournament, especially with a series of COVID-19 cases hitting the team. How long he’ll be missing and exactly how he’ll be replaced remain unclear.

"Yes we miss him here, but I’m also happy for him," Struber said. "He had a big game against Brazil and I think this is, for every player, a big situation to play for his country and use his time, and I can see Cristian [played] in a very good way against Brazil. I think this is good for his personal mindset when he comes back. We miss him here, but we hope he is back very soon and in the same shape [for] what we need. I am very happy with the situation, but I miss him."

3. Frankie says he’s better

Midfielder Frankie Amaya says he is ready to go despite leaving RBNY’s previous match injured in the 43rd minute. Amaya has started five straight for the Red Bulls, notching a goal and an assist through six appearances in his first season with the club.

"I’m feeling much better, had a little ankle tweak but I’m feeling much better," Amaya said. "It was a good time to let the body heal, let the body recover, let the mind recover a little. We had momentum going into the break and it felt better going into the break with a win and now we’re back to work."

4. Solving Nashville’s low block

Defense has proven to be the strength of Nashville SC, which had the third best defense in the East last season and has allowed just six goals through seven matches in 2021. The second-year club’s tendency to settle back and force opponents to unlock its low block presents a challenge for a Red Bulls side hoping to force errors with a high press. Red Bulls captain Sean Davis said a race to the first goal will be key in how the match plays out.

"They're very good against the ball, they're comfortable defending, they have a lot of guys that do a lot of dirty work and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the shutout as you saw last year and even in games this year," Davis said. "We have to be patient, we have to be smart in how we move the ball and try to disorganize them, and maybe even more importantly, we have to be ready for when the ball turns over because they're a team that's very good in transition"

5. Homecoming in Harrison

The Red Bulls’ first match against Nashville SC will feature two players who used to call RBA home in former RBNY captain Dax McCarty and homegrown player Alex Muyl. Davis is one of the few remaining Red Bulls to play alongside McCarty during his time in Harrison, which ended in 2016, while Muyl will recognize a few more familiar faces since he was traded in 2020.

"I’m going up against two of my favorite players in MLS, without a doubt," Davis said. "They’re both big-time players, both players that have done a tremendous amount for the club and two guys that I’m really thankful that I shared the locker room with. It’s going to be fun, but obviously once we all cross those lines it’s all about winning."

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