Week 6: New York Red Bulls thrash DC United, lose 1-0

Us too, Mike, us too. - Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In their best performance in MLS this season, New York's Red Bulls lost to DC United.

We needed that.

Since starting the season with a drubbing in Vancouver, the New York Red Bulls have spent a month delivering a series of increasingly high quality draws. An improbable penalty denied RBNY a home-opening win over Colorado; a scrappy draw in Chicago was followed by a dominating draw back home in Harrison against Chivas USA (albeit, a tie secured with the last kick of the game); and then there was last week's probably-shoulda-won-that, 2-2 in Montreal.

After each game, we have become accustomed to balanced, reasonable soundbites from the team. "There (were) a couple of goals to be had, we just weren't able to get the winner," said Mike Petke in the wake of the Colorado game. "If we had been a bit sharper in the final third, we could have had a better result," said Dax McCarty after the Chicago match. "There is no panic button, no panic," was Petke's response to the last-gasp tie with Chivas. "At the end of the day, there's a point to take home," said Luis Robles after RBNY missed a penalty and left two points on the field in Montreal.

The team is, outwardly, level-headed. Staunch professionalism reigns in the post-match press conferences. Even after this match - in which RBNY pummeled DC in front of its own fans, and somehow contrived to lose - the team's watchword is patience: "We can't keep making excuses, but it's still early in the season. There's no reason to panic," said McCarty.

He's right: there is no reason to panic. There are 28 games left  in the regular season. A lot can happen - especially in a league where fortunes change quickly. Parity tends to drag all the teams toward each other. And if the aim of MLS is to be the best over a handful of games in November, it is unnecessary to get too high or too low over your team's fortunes in April.

We lost, but we probably played some of our best stuff of the season   -Dax McCarty (empireofsoccer.com)

So the team is right not to panic. And, to it's credit, no representative of RBNY has reached for excuses during this barren start to 2014. The squad is in the midst of a mini-injury crisis, but we're not hearing much mention of it in the post-match analysis. There have been some questionable calls - the penalty conceded to Colorado; the referee's indulgence of Chivas USA's extravagant embellishment of the effects of gravity - but very little moaning about officiating from the players or coach when the recorders are switched on in the dressing room.

This is the right thing to do: the team's cause is not helped if players and technical staff start thrashing around for scapegoats, pointing fingers, or impotently whining to the press about the frustrations of losing. The absence of post-match tears or fisticuffs shouldn't fool anyone into thinking Mike Petke or Thierry Henry, or anyone else on the team, is happy about going six games without a win. It doesn't need to be said - by them.


But fans have more leeway. We are expected to be emotional about the team. Soccer is not our profession, it is our recreation. We are allowed to be irrational. We can panic.

And a little panic can be a good thing: it can bring urgency, a reassessment of the status quo, a re-examination of the principles expected to deliver success.

The team undoubtedly sees the same problems we see (sees them more clearly, if anything), but it must focus on the solution in a measured, disciplined way. The tape of DC United's 4th-minute match-winner will be reviewed. It came off a corner, whipped in to the near side of the six-yard box, flicked on by Bobby Boswell, and bounced past Robles and Kosuke Kimura by Davy Arnaud.

Is there a problem with the way the team lines up to defend set pieces? Jamison Olave and McCarty were essentially spectators on the play; Eric Alexander was close enough to Davy Arnaud to look like he was marking him, without actually doing any real marking; neither Roy Miller nor Henry were able to prevent Boswell from making his flick-on; the goal saved us from finding out whether the referee noticed Ibrahim Sekagya bear-hugging Jeff Parke in front of the net.

We can't blame anyone but ourselves   -Dax McCarty (mlssoccer.com)

Only the coach and players can say for sure whether any assignments were blown, or the team was simply wrong-footed by a well-worked set piece. There is, however, clearly a problem with RBNY's defense. Luis Robles is the busiest 'keeper in MLS: 37 shots faced and 26 of them saved through six games. The team has conceded 10 goals, but it could have shipped 20 were it not for Robles.

In this game, Boswell got a free header on goal in the 51st minute - another set piece poorly defended by RBNY - that was in the net if it had been directed anywhere but straight at Robles. Even then, the 'keeper had to react quickly to parry the ball to a place of greater safety and collect his own rebound.

Without Robles, RBNY might not just be looking at zero wins, but also zero points. Work must be done to limit the number of shots on goal (and on target) allowed.

Still, the main problem with this team is in attack - and it is in this regard that the jaw-clenching frustration of this match may prove to be helpful over the longer term.

Today we played the way football should be played, but we didn't score    -Thierry Henry (empireofsoccer.com)

The basic issue, agonizingly illustrated by this match, would appear to be tactical. It's not, however, that the tactics aren't working - the problem is the tactics are working.

From what we've seen over the the past couple of games in particular, but the last month in general, Petke wants his team controlling possession, using the flanks to stretch the defense, and getting the ball into the box often.

This is working out very well. Against Colorado, the team had 53% of possession, completed almost 100 passes (94) in the final third, and got 29 crosses off. Against Chicago, RBNY had 57% of possession, completed 99 final-third passes and sent in 26 crosses. Against Chivas: 61% possession, 98 completed passes in the final third, and 30 crosses attempted. But all of that attacking pressure yielded just one goal per game.

The only game this year in which RBNY has managed to score more than once was last week's match in Montreal, when Petke sent the team out in a 4-5-1 and we saw a more counter-attacking style. The team lost the possession battle (47%), only managed 14 crosses, and only attempted 95 passes in the final third (of which 69 were completed). Two goals were scored, and there should have been a third.

Against D.C. United, despite being on the road, it was back to the old script: 4-4-2, 57% possession, 39 crosses, 113 passes completed in the final third. This was the most dominating performance, statistically, for RBNY this season. And we lost.

But the tactics were clearly working. Twitter was ablaze with economically expressed rage from RBNY fans after the match, because the team was so clearly better than DC, and so infuriatingly incapable of converting that superiority into goals. Of nineteen attempts on goal, only three were on target. DC's 'keeper, Andrew Dykstraplayed well - but mostly, he watched Red Bulls firing wide. Jonny Steele put a half-volley over the bar; Eric Alexander just missed the top corner; Peguy Luyindula hit the post; Bradley Wright-Phillips almost ricocheted a shot into the net; Thierry Henry missed with a headertwice, and then a third time.

The problem for RBNY lies mainly in the fact that Thierry Henry missed a lot of headers. Thierry Henry should not be attempting a lot of headers - it's not really his game. Yes, he's much better at controlling a football with any part of his body than most of us are with our hands, but he's best with the ball at his feet.

Henry's head is for thinking up exquisite passes and technically superlative shots, not bashing hopefully at the ball in the air. Furthermore, restricting Henry to a handful of headers counts as a victory for most defenders. RBNY's game plan - pulling the ball wide and crossing it in - is neutralizing our best asset.

What the hell is going on here?   -Mike Petke (mlssoccer.com)

Also, the plan is working so well, we're seeing Petke looking increasingly baffled about how to affect the game from the sidelines.What is he supposed to fix? Everything - except goal scoring - is working out as he hoped. Hence, the lack of any plan B from the bench. Against DC, the game seemed to be crying out for a half-time substitution: throw BWP up top, let Luyindula drop back into midfield, probably at the expense of Alexander.

BWP is yet to really shine this season, but he is a true striker: he'll stay forward, run the channels, and challenge the defense's positioning in a way the deep-lying tendencies of Henry and Luyindula (the starting forward pair in this match) do not.

Part of the reason Henry kept missing headers is because the DC defense was able to give up space on the flanks and hold down the middle. Too often, we saw Lloyd Sam charge down the right, look up, and pause for white shirts to get into the right sort of positions for a cross into the box. BWP can be relied upon to stay central and forward, which helps to prevent the defense from simply setting up to defend against crosses - or at least helps poor Sam have at least one consistent target (albeit a small one) to aim at.

But Petke didn't throw BWP on until the 66th minute - because he's not that much better an option, especially when plan A was working better than ever before. And when BWP came on, it was for Jonny Steele, not Alexander, which seemed to unbalance the side, since it meant the team was absent a natural left-sided midfielder for the game's closing stages.

Other than BWP, Petke's substitutions were out of need (Lade for an injured Roy Miller in the 84th minute) and desperation (Ruben Bover for Alexander in the 90th minute for no particular reason other than it might have worked).

It's difficult to change up a system that is working - which is why it may be to the team's benefit that it lost. This was the 2014 game plan executed about as well as could be hoped. Yes, some important players were missing (most prominently, Tim Cahill), but their absence was not really felt tactically. Instead, we saw the real problem facing RBNY: we've been figured out. Even with Cahill in the team, an opponent can afford to let RBNY go wide and send in dozens of crosses, because they can retain their defensive shape in front of goal.

Unable to pull defenders out of position in the center, RBNY is forced to compete for the ball in the air - which, even with Cahill in the lineup - is not this team's strength, especially when the defense knows what's coming.

So we get a dominant performance with no end-product: no goals. This needs to be fixed. Petke knows this. The players know this. They will focus on so doing - methodically, purposefully, and (we hope) effectively.

You cannot let a performance like this get you down  -Mike Petke (bigapplesoccer.com)

Perhaps what is lacking is merely greater urgency. Or just better luck. Maybe there needs to be a tactical overhaul. These decisions are with the coach and the players.

As fans, all we can do is support the team by maintaining the relentless, unreasonable expectation that RBNY be the best team on the pitch whenever it plays. It hasn't done that yet, so it is logical for us to ratchet up the pressure. It is reasonable - possibly our duty as fans - for us to panic.


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