The New York Red Bulls took a clean sheet and a point out of Texas this week. No shame in that: FC Dallas is riding high in the Supporters' Shield Race, and was the league's highest-scoring team heading into Week 11.
Fabian Castillo missed perhaps the best chance anyone on either side had to break the stalemate, but the match was not without incident. Indeed, FCD might have cantered away with this game were it not for a disciplined and determined defensive effort by RBNY.
The highlights of that effort were provided by Felipe Martins and Kemar Lawrence.
First, in the 16th minute, Lawrence pulled off a phenomenal block/interception to deny Castillo the chance to see whether he could beat Luis Robles from close range.
That is an impressive piece of defending. Lawrence cuts across from his position at left back to a place on the field where one would expect to see the right back. He has been rightly applauded for his physical gifts - Taxi ("It's really from one of my primary school coaches...he thought that I was really fast") doesn't get to the ball if he isn't capable of a quick sprint - but the play illustrates how well he reads the game.
As Dallas works the ball up the field with some quick, effective short passing, Lawrence is simply following the action from his usual place on the back line [0:11 on the tape]. When Mauro Diaz makes the pass that sends the ball into the box, Taxi immediately recognizes that both center backs are in trouble - and he accelerates to follow the ball [0:14]. From that moment, he appears to be in straight race with Fabian Castillo, not a slow runner himself. Except Castillo is running toward a pass intended for him, and Lawrence is coming from the far side of the field to try to insert himself into the play.
Lawrence knows Castillo has beaten his marker - Chris Duvall - and he also knows he will not be getting to the ball first. He checks his run, holding back just a fraction to let Castillo tee up the shot, and then steps in for the block. His movement is so well timed, Robles is already committed to trying to make a save [0:17].
It's an excellent example of how the Red Bulls defend as a unit. The team knew Castillo was a threat and would have been mindful of the fact he has the pace and movement to get by any defender in the league. Support for Duvall was an imperative part of the game plan, and Lawrence's work demonstrated that every player on the back line was alive to the danger posed by a man who will be a MVP candidate if he sustains his current level of play.
We saw similar teamwork in action when Damien Perrinelle moved across to cover for Duvall and handle Castillo after the right back lost out on a 50/50 ball in the 55th minute. And the best chance Castillo had in the match was effectively a fluke: Kellyn Acosta flubbed an ambitious, acrobatic attempt at a shot, and Castillo got to the loose ball in the box before anyone else.
It would have been a well deserved goal, but it was also telling that the best chance FCD had in the match was a moment defined by the random bounce of the ball off Acosta's leg. More deliberate efforts were well tracked and efficiently stifled by the RBNY back line. (Except, perhaps, Acosta getting to that cross in the first place - he split the center backs perfectly, and had time and space for a shot, albeit at not insignificant distance from goal.)
Part of that efficiency was born from the fact that the RBNY back line was not always its four specialist defenders. In the 72nd minute, Felipe Martins made a goal-line save that will probably be nominated for Save of the Week.
A back post cross cuts out the entire defense, and this time it is Kemar Lawrence who is scrambling to recover his position. Much like the moment in the first half when Taxi anticipated FCD's plan of attack and put himself in position to neutralize the threat, Felipe is reading the play unfolding around him and trying to position himself to help the Red Bulls' cause as effectively as possible.
In this instance, he decides that is on the goal-line. As the ball sails over the cluster of defenders and attackers in the box, Felipe drifts through the crowd and decides to cover the space behind Luis Robles, who is drawn toward the action at his left-hand post.
FCD's Michael Barrios gets off an excellent shot: one-touch, on-target, despite pressure from Lawrence. The ball spins past Robles - and Felipe is, fortunately, perfectly positioned on the line to make an agile and essential kick save.
Lawrence's earlier interception was a function of a very deliberate reading of exactly what was happening and the judgement and physical ability required to intervene effectively. Felipe's save is also about reading the game, but in a more general way: he has no way of knowing Barrios is going to clip a shot past Robles from that angle (whereas Lawrence absolutely knew what he was seeing when Diaz played Castillo in behind the back line), but Martins is standing on the goal line just in case such a thing happens.
In both cases, however, we're seeing the Red Bulls defend as a unit, cover for each other in the service of a common goal: keeping the opponent off the scoreboard.
Felipe's effort will likely get considerable attention when MLS publishes its Save of the Week nominations. Lawrence's was no less important or difficult to execute. Both are merely highlights of RBNY's defensive work this week, and indeed all season. The team's early-season success has been largely attributed to its aggressive pressing game and remodeled midfield - which is essentially the tactical approach Jesse Marsch has been touting since he was appointed and the impact of the two most high-profile players the team traded for in the off-season.
But the attack is still a work in progress: the team has yet to score more than two goals in a single game, meaning even matches it has dominated have been relatively close. The offense has been good - only five teams in MLS have scored more than RBNY (as of Sunday, May 17, with DC, Orlando, LA and Philadelphia yet to play in Week 11) - but the defense has been better: only D.C. United has conceded fewer goals to this point in the season.
RBNY's first clean sheet on the road this year may yet be regarded as a high point for the team's defensive efforts. There is no way of telling what lies ahead, and the squad seems to roll into each week with fresh challenges on the back line (injury, suspension and international call-ups have been a constant factor for Marsch to consider when picking his defenders each week).
But so far, the strength of this team is not its three-headed midfield monster, or Lloyd Sam, or Bradley Wright-Phillips. It is a surprisingly coherent and disciplined back four that has remained effective, despite having been chopped and changed and band-aided throughout the season. And that back four has been boosted by a defensive philosophy that clearly expects every player in the lineup to offer support when and where required. A still modestly productive attack has been allowed to get maximum value from its efforts by the fact this defense has rarely allowed an opponent to capitalize excessively on its chances.
RBNY has been a little lucky - never more so than when Castillo skewed his best chance of the game over the bar in Dallas - but the team is making a lot of that luck for itself. The 2015 edition of the New York Red Bulls is billed as a high-pressing, relentlessly attacking squad that will never stop trying to score. That will only get more true as the players find their rhythm. But right now, it is the way the team gathers as a unit when it doesn't have the ball that has made it hard to beat through its opening 10 games of the season.