The New York Red Bulls are in a funk. They got beat at home last week thanks to a lackluster 20 minute spell in the second half which saw Chicago Fire build a lead (5-2) that stood up to a vigorous fightback (the Fire clung on to win 5-4). RBNY's reaction to the home ground humbling was to expand on the 20 minutes of shame in Harrison, delivering a full 90 minutes of mediocrity to a grateful Toronto FC.
Things change quickly in soccer. A four game undefeated streak has now given way to back-to-back losses. For a while, the team appeared to have figured out how to paper over its deficiencies, but now it is back to looking like the side which lost 4-1 to Vancouver on opening day: awful.
Fortunately, in MLS, it is one thing to be awful at full strength in September with the playoffs looming, and entirely a different matter to be awful in May, without three standout players (Roy Miller and Tim Cahill are on World Cup duty; Peguy Luyindula picked up a knock in training and had to sit out this match).
Much of the debate about RBNY's lineup this season has centered on the question of whether Cahill and Luyindula are mutually exclusive midfield options - and the suspicion that the team is better with off with Luyindula than the Australian. This match featured neither, and functioned as a data point in support of another hypothesis: Eric Alexander and Dax McCarty don't make for a great central midfield partnership. Both are plenty good at winning the ball and funneling it out to the flanks: RBNY had almost 60% possession in this game, and essayed nearly 40 crosses.
But that was about all the Red Bulls had by way of an attacking idea for most of this game and the stats tell the story of its effectiveness: just 4 of 37 crosses were successful, while TFC's centerback pairing (Steven Caldwell and Nick Hagglund) racked up 17 headers between them.
It was a day to forget for RBNY.
The teams traded early chances, but the game's defining moment came in the 12th minute: Kosuke Kimura missed Dax McCarty with a pass in midfield, Bradley Orr intercepted, skipped past a flailing McCarty, and sent a through-ball toward Jermain Defoe.
The Englishman has probably missed out on the World Cup (he's on standby for his country), and used the half-chance to send a highlight-reel reminder of what could have been to Roy Hodgson. He got enough separation from Armando to line up his shot, and slammed the ball past Luis Robles from just inside the area.
It was a very, very good finish. So much so that to blame it on defensive errors is uncharitable. Defoe didn't score because Kimura's pass didn't get to McCarty. Nor did he score because McCarty didn't get to Orr. Defoe was being closed down by Armando, and Robles had good positioning. It was an excellent strike. Not every goal is directly attributable to a flaw in the defending; sometimes, it's just good play from the attacking side.
TFC should have had another goal in the 16th minute: Jonny Steele whiffed on an attempted clearance and Kyle Bekker's free kick skipped through to Gilberto at the back post - he stuck his shot wide. And there should have been a Toronto goal in the 69th minute, when a Mark Bloom cross evaded the entire RBNY back line and allowed Daniel Lovitz an uncontested shot at goal, which Jamison Olave blocked on the line.
Both those chances were better examples of defensive ineptitude by RBNY than Defoe's goal. They were also excellent examples of poor finishing. Unfortunately, the worst attempted finish of the day fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips.
In the first 20 minutes of the second half, RBNY did manage to turn its possession advantage into sustained pressure on the Toronto goal. In the 62nd minute, Thierry Henry got round the defense and his cross bounced through the six-yard box. TFC 'keeper Joe Bendik missed the ball, caught a face full of Lloyd Sam's studs, and BWP had a tap-in to an open goal.
He may have had half an eye on Bendik (would the goal have been called back for a foul on the 'keeper?), he may have been surprised to find a weak cross arriving at his feet. Whatever he was thinking, he wasn't thinking about knocking the ball into the net. He sliced his shot over the bar from six yards out.
It isn't the first time BWP has missed when it was easier to score, or at least hit the target, and it won't be the last - unless RBNY persists with the delusion that he is a target forward, and keeps trying to get him to fetch the ball out of the air with his head. As he has been saying since his eight-goals-in-four-games streak started, sometimes they don't go in.
It was an embarrassing moment in an embarrassing performance from RBNY. Very little went right. Mike Petke's half-time substitution (draft pick Chris Duvall made his debut, replacing Kimura for the second half) was somehow fumbled, forcing Duvall to wait on the sideline for a break in play instead of lining up on the field when the match restarted.
There were two reasonable RBNY appeals for handball in the penalty area turned down, either one of which might have been called on another day and gifted an equalizer (or winner, if BWP...yeah, let's not go back to that one).
But the general sense of the match was New York was second-best, not merely starting poorly, but seemingly incapable of turning the tide. Swapping right backs at half-time is not a tactical shift designed to strike fear and confusion into the heart of an opponent. Petke brought Ruben Bover on for the last ten minutes, shifting to a three-at-the-back formation, but it didn't amount to much. The impact of a third substitution was never explored.
Toronto at least had the decency to score another goal, relieving BWP of the burden of being the man who missed the chance to save the match. A stoppage-time kick upfield by Bendik was chased down by Luke Moore. Duvall and Robles were in attendance, but neatly took each other out (more Robles's fault than Duvall's, in fairness). Moore walked the ball into the net.
It was a humbling day for RBNY. Ill-timed, given last week's humiliation by Harrison (Shipp) in Harrison (NJ), and more frustrating as a result. The team's two recent losses leave it six points behind the pace of last season (when RBNY had 20 points after 12 games), and 11 points behind current Supporters' Shield leaders, Seattle.
There is much to improve on, but also 22 games left in the regular season to do so.