The New York Red Bulls opened their 2015 regular season with a 1-1 draw on the road against Sporting Kansas City in a match which featured many new faces on both sides of the action. The meeting will be the only clash between the two clubs due to the realignment of MLS to accommodate the two new expansion franchises in the East.
The match was a bit like a "tale of two halves" type of an affair, with the first half being a "feeling out" period involving much more strategy. I felt that the second half was much more wide open, frenetic, and sloppy at points. The first thoughts I had on the starting lineup echoed the sentiment of many other Red Bulls fans: where was Peguy Luyindula? We would learn later that he is taking a leave from the team to ponder his playing future, yet another holdover from the Thierry Henry era which is becoming further away from my memory.
In fact it was strange for me throughout the match to not see Henry taking the corner kicks or the free kicks on set pieces. That responsibility looks like it was delegated by new Head Coach Marsch to Felipe Martins. In my view, I do not think Felipe played well in this match at all, it is my sincere hope that he grows into this role as the season progresses and I am willing to give him a pass on his first game with the club.
It was also strange to watch this match on Fox Sports 1 as it was the first match in their new TV rights contract with MLS. I thought overall they did a pretty good job covering the action (though it was weird to hear Brad Friedel doing commentary I remember when he was a rookie playing in goal). I agree with my colleague Jason in that I did not like the ads that crunched down my TV screen in the middle of the action, that should be eliminated in future telecasts and the Red Bulls will be on Fox Sports often this season so I hope that does get changed.
This match featured the debut of the high press system espoused by new Coach Marsch and the team certainly played a totally different style and had a much different look on the field. I am unsure whether they had the conditioning to play within it for the entire 90 minutes, and I remain concerned that the turnovers will serve to burn them in future matches if that persists.
In the initial stages of the match I did not like the way the defense performed especially the central defense which is a new pairing of Ronald Zubar and Damien Perrinelle. They looked disorganized and their shape fell apart often at the first sign of penetration by the SKC offensive attack. In fair balance, SKC missed many scoring ooprtunities through this match and as the action moved forward Zubar settled into the game and Perrinelle did not.
In addition, coming out of training camp in Florida Perrinelle and Felipe were the two new Red Bulls players I was most concerned about going into the 2015 season, and both of their performances did not do anything to neutralize my trepidation about them. I read an article on another site about how Coach Marsch feels he can help Perrinelle grow as player and within this system, I hope he is right for the sake of the team and the fans.
The aggressive style of SKC at certain stretches throughout the match showed me that Luis Robles has not missed a beat since the end of the MLS Cup Playoffs last season. Our keeper looked very good in making some tough saves and parrying the ball from danger on several occasions.That is a positive sign that the team can build upon as the season progresses, Robles helped them stay in this match yesterday and I think he will do the same in the matches to come.
The Red Bulls passed the ball better in the first half than they did in the second half, which surprised me, I thought they would settle into the match and be even more accurate as it went on, that was not the case. It also is an element of the high press which puts an emphasis on getting the ball forward really at all costs, and that imperative of their new system forced what I call "passes to nowhere" at a few points yesterday. I am sure this is a kink that the club will work out over time, but those turnovers could be costly in a tight match against a top-tier opponent in the future.
Throughout the offseason from the announcement of Jesse Marsch's hiring as head coach to replace the ultra popular Mike Petke, the team spoke about playing up tempo and fast paced soccer. The Petke years were known for a more plodding style of play relying on pushing the ball up the wings and crossing passes to Henry or Bradley Wright-Phillips to make plays in the middle of the field.
The biggest question we had (and I even heard it asked to Sporting Director Ali Curtis in the offseason) is what type of formation would Coach Marsch use? Well we got our answer yesterday with the 4-2-3-1 he chose to use against Sporting KC. I am really not sure what to make of that decision though as I liked some aspects of it and I was not thrilled about some other aspects of the formation. I can understand the logic behind using it based on the personnel he had available and to Marsch's credit the formation did limit the ability of SKC to break out or counter attack which they like to do to their opponents. It kept Kansas City essentially bottled up from breaking out into their attacking phases.
However, while I know that SKC put a premium on stopping Wright-Phillips and were pretty successful in doing so, the formation does not allow for enough ball movement to transition to the attacking players. While I think Sacha Kjlestan played pretty well overall, I do think that he was swarmed by the SKC players and he struggled to get the ball to BWP up top. This exposed a roster weakness for New York and that is that they do not have enough forwards and with Luyindula departing the club, I think their emphasis should be on finding another forward to play up top with Wright-Phillips. The case in point was at one time late in the match Kansas City's Dom Dwyer had almost twice as many touches as BWP and that is not going to be a formula for success for the Red Bulls moving forward.
Coaching and Strategy
I thought that Marsch managed the match pretty well overall. I know that much has been stated about the decision to keep Mike Grella in the starting group and the fans on social media remain divided on whether he played well enough to remain in it. In my perspective, I think Grella should remain a starter for now, but he did hold the ball too much in the match and had two costly turnovers as well, I hope that is not a harbinger of things to come. In the high press, you cannot hold onto the ball like that for that long an interval without passing it forward.
In the defense of Coach Marsch, right when I started thinking that Grella should be substituted out of the match he brought him out in the 67th minute. I thought that Sal Zizzo played fairly well off the bench in his place. The Red Bulls overall were too tentative with the ball inside the 18 yard box. They would drive the ball down the field, and then they would not shoot the ball when they got into the penalty area, which I could not understand, and I think that needs to be adjusted in the future.
In my view, the response to the SKC goal scored in the 50th minute, on a play where both Roy Miller and Ronald Zubar were out of position, showed some resilience by the Red Bulls to score just 4 minutes later on a brilliant strike by Lloyd Sam who gave an outstanding effort in the match.
The Red Bulls have to improve their play on set pieces, they had several opportunities yesterday and did not execute them very well. The club also did not take advantage of the match when they went up a man after the Besler red card, I thought they could have moved the ball into the position to get numbers on attacking situations and they failed to do so. I must concede that the field conditions could have also been partially to blame for that situation. I know the field was saturated and I saw several players falling throughout the match.
Overall the team played well and they will build chemistry as the season moves on which continues with a match on March 22nd with their Atlantic Cup rivals the DC United.