The boys in white went into this weekend as heavy favorites to beat the Philadelphia Union by a good margin, especially since the New York Red Bulls had never lost at home to the Union. However, home fans received quite a surprise: the Red Bulls succumbed 2-0 to the visitors. The Cathedral’s patrons were left to process a sight they had literally never seen before: Philly marching out of Red Bull Arena with three points.
The match had been billed as a sure victory for RBNY, and a good leg up on other Eastern Conference teams - especially after the Revolution and DC United played to a draw in the same game-week.
It didn't work out that way. The first half carried quite a bit of misfortune, as the seemingly rapid depletion in RBNY defensive options continued with an injury to Kemar Lawrence. And by the end of the game, the Red Bulls were facing the fact they have now logged only one win in the last five outings - and that was against NYCFC.
The Red Bulls have pivoted from being a side that was undefeated in its first seven matches, and won three of those, to one that has six points from the last 18 it has contested. That has led many to conclude that RBNY is now falling into a slump; the memory of early successes is quickly fading. Although the latter sentiment is a point of fact, the former makes me wonder: is the club slumping?
At the beginning of season, the team enjoyed a good period of success – its best start in several years. However, now that the first third of the season is over, with the benefit of greater context, I am not so convinced that recent results mean the RBNY is falling into a slump or slowing down. Results have been uneven, but performances have been relatively consistent.
The team has a 4-2-5 record after its first 11 games, which does not seem that impressive. The wins were solid: the Red Bulls scored 8 and conceded 2 in those four matches. The team has had the edge on possession against all opponents with the exception of NYCFC; the greatest share was 68.8% against the Colorado Rapids. The possession number is an underappreciated portion of the game, especially because it does not necessarily effect the scoreboard as we saw against Philadelphia Union.
Coach Jesse Marsch has the intention of bringing an up-tempo game, with plenty of offensive action, dominant possession, and minimal mistakes like turnovers that would give way to dangerous counterattacks. All in all, the team seems to be quite successful in this regard, and Marsch remains optimistic about the style:
You know I think we were a little bit unlucky. In Dallas it was a very cautious game on both sides and so there wasn't a goal. Tonight, I think we just couldn't quite get the break or the play or weren't quite sharp enough so on a different day maybe it's two [or] three [to] zero at half, but Philly hangs on, they get a couple breaks, and then they came out in the second half and continued to do what they wanted to do.
His candidness is surely appreciated, as well as his ability to always keep his head up. The problem with this particular game (against the Union) was the slack that was given in the second half, and after the unlucky shots in the first half, it did not seem the confidence was there in the second half. As is always true in the sport, once you miss several seemingly certain goal scoring opportunities, it is almost inevitable you will concede one. RBNY succumbed to one of the most well-worn (sort of) truths of soccer.
The main issue seems to be finishing, because the up-tempo game that Marsch has introduced does appear to be taking off. However, the lack of goals in games is an issue for this team. The Red Bulls yet to score more than two goals in a game this season; they have been held scoreless in the last two. Marsch himself concedes finishing is a weak point:
I think if we're able to make a couple of plays tonight then we'd be pretty happy, maybe get a lead at half, but because we weren't, we have to continue to, regardless, in this process. We need to continue to figure out when we play in games like this, how do we be more effective and how to be a bit more dangerous and how to create a few more clear chances.
The team appears to be still trying to find its rhythm in order to starting creating those clear chances referenced above. However, I believe the team deserves credit. The reliance on a single striker creates its own complications, but when you also tack on new players like Kljestan and Grella feeding BWP the ball, it will take time for understanding to develop, both of the system and each other. Perhaps we can hope that connection between the three and Lloyd Sam will finally be established once the playoffs become relevant.
Kljestan himself acknowledges the attack can improve:
We were not sharp enough in the final third tonight. We need to get that going. I think we have good players we had some good movement. We just need to get a little bit sharper.
Though, overall the former Anderlecht player is not too concerned about the lack of finishing – which again can be attributed to having yet to completely settle down with a new team.
The defense also seems to be more of a makeshift back line then anything else. Both starting centerbacks (Miazga and Perrinelle) were unavailable against Philadelphia, and Connor Lade had to jump into replace an injured Lawrence. It is especially difficult for a back line that does not normally play together to snap in to place as a solid unit.
Moving forward, hopefully the team will continue to mitigate some of these issues, as well as continue to probe for success throughout the season.
A win against the Union was important, however, because the Red Bulls have a quite difficult schedule the next five games. They could have used the morale boost.
Seattle at Century Link is next – a dangerous team with a good goal output, but they do have a midweek match up against Colorado, which could tighten them up ahead of the game against the Red Bulls. Then comes Houston, Vancouver, and Salt Lake – all sure to offer testing moments, as each team has core competencies in attack and midfield that could dispatch New York. Last comes the return game against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium. The new side will surely be looking for revenge at home, and could definitely prove to be difficult opponents in the second New York derby.
The last three games come within an eight day period which will prove another test for Marsch’s team. That being said, these games present an opportunity to find the attacking and goal scoring flow that the Red Bulls truly need now. For these five games the Red Bulls should look to obtain at least two wins. An optimistic outlook would suggest three, especially since two of the games are at home. Let us just hope Grella can keep up his dribbling black magic.