The build up to the New York Red Bulls home opener against their Atlantic Cup rivals, D.C. United, was all about protests over the dismissal of Mike Petke, a lack of confidence in the front office, and the anticipatory anxiety regarding a rebuilt defensive back line which was missing two starting players due to injury.
Once the whistle sounded and the opening kick took place, the home opener became about the new style of soccer that new Head Coach Jesse Marsch has brought to the club, and it became about the players on the field especially fan favorites Dax McCarty and Bradley Wright-Phillips. After the first 10-12 minutes of play in the match the chants for ousted coach Petke and the divisions within the fan base subsided and yielded to surprise at how different the Red Bulls looked in their play compared to two weeks ago in their season opener.
New York passed the ball crisply, they had cut down on the turnovers of possession, and they were aggressive and attacking what appeared to be a shell shocked United side in the early stages of the match. The Red Bulls applied pressure and did not relent shooting the ball often (after they were much maligned for not shooting it against Sporting KC in their season debut) and forcing corner kicks to keep the DC players pinned in their own defensive end.
The breakthrough came in the 25th minute when new Red Bulls captain, Dax McCarty, sent a long, high arching outlet pass perfectly to the feet of his teammate and star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips. The English striker settled the ball took a step back and then fired a rocket of a shot past United goalkeeper Bill Hamid for a 1-0 Red Bulls lead. The play displayed to me that the Red Bulls could be effective at getting the ball from the deep lying midfield positions occupied by McCarty and Felipe Martins and into the striking range for "BWP" to convert scoring opportunities. Wright-Phillips played the ball beautifully and D.C. looked uncharacteristically poor on defense as he split two of their top defenders to score the opening goal.
The United came right back and had their first big offensive chance on a counter attack where Chris Rolfe and Chris Pontius worked together on a breakout play but Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles made the first of five big saves he would have in this match.
D.C. certainly looked like a club that was missing some key players as Luis Silva, Fabian Espindola, and Eddie Johnson were all unavailable to play for the club yesterday. However, that is not to take away anything from the excellent effort given by the Red Bulls in what was a really exciting and fun match to watch on ESPN in their "MLS Soccer Sunday" coverage.
In my view, we learned three things from the match yesterday:
1. BWP is going to find ways to score goals
2. Lloyd Sam playing inside and aggressive rather than out on the wing is a positive change
3. The Red Bulls midfield setup could work very well - they outplayed DC
The big questions after the strange and sometimes sloppy effort in the season opener in Kansas City revolved around who was going to get Wright-Phillips the ball in the absence of Thierry Henry? How was the midfield going to deal with top tier competition? Who was going to step up in a supportive scoring role to help BWP?
The answers to those questions came forward in one degree or another in the course of the match against DC. Many people (myself included) felt that the Red Bulls needed to obtain a big time star midfielder to get the ball to Wright-Phillips in space. That may not be the case, they may be able to make some adjustments like they did yesterday and use Felipe in a more forward attacking role as well as using the passing ability of McCarty to make plays from a deep lying position. Sacha Kljestan played well yesterday overall and in my view he still has the capability of filling that role of feeding the ball to BWP as well.
The Red Bulls midfield played very well yesterday and showed signs that it could be a very special unit as the season moves ahead. New York completely outplayed D.C. in that aspect of the match with McCarty dragging Chris Pontius all over the field which prevented him from contributing much to the United offensive attack. The change in the lineup from Mike Grella to Sal Zizzo was also a positive development as Zizzo played well overall and was able to apply pressure offensively with his strong passing skills.
However, perhaps the biggest revelation in this match was the play of Lloyd Sam. The way he was used by Marsch too to play inside at points compared to always playing out on the wing last season, was a key adjustment in their strategy which worked very well. It led directly to the decisive play in the match in the 71st minute when Felipe took possession after a United miscue and passed the ball to Wright-Phillips who blazed down the field on the attack and deftly passed the ball to Sam who drilled a shot past a diving Hamid for the second Red Bulls goal of the match.
The aggressiveness of Lloyd Sam, McCarty, Felipe, and the rest of the Red Bulls players was a refreshing change from the team we saw play in Kansas City. I like the way that they transitioned so quickly if DC got the ball in deep on them and then turned over possesion, the Red Bulls got right into attack mode and got the ball quickly into their offensive attacking third of the field.
This steady attacking style also had the ancillary benefit of preventing the United from exposing their rebuilt defense. The entire week leading up to the match I was concerned with Roy Miller and Ronald Zubar being out of the action for New York defensively, and their defense was never really tested by DC yesterday. Robles did his part with some great saves, but the best opportunity for DC came in stoppage time when Pontius was awarded a penalty shot. However, he sent the shot five feet over the crossbar and the Red Bulls closed out an impressive victory over the top team in the East last season in their home opener.
The Red Bulls gave the fans (who were uneasy about this match and this season as a whole) some definite signs of hope after their performance yesterday in shutting out their rivals, the DC United, but the challenge will now become whether they can build on this performance. Can they continue to play aggressively and push the tempo in matches against other top tier teams? We will find out the answers in time with the next challenge coming this Saturday night on the road against a very tough club, the Columbus Crew.
We will preview that match and discuss all the pertinent details regarding the club as the week goes on, but today it is about the win and a unexpectedly strong performance in what looks to be a new chapter in the history of the franchise. It certainly feels good to be optimistic about the future for this club. It is certainly better than the alternative.