With one win in their last eight, it’s not exactly a stretch to say that the New York Red Bulls haven't been playing their best soccer lately. That poor play has been exacerbated during the second halves of each of their last three matches culminating in a 4-1 second-half drubbing Friday night at the hands of the Houston Dynamo, after going into halftime up 1-0. The 4-2 loss was their third-straight.
The proverbial pitch forks are out in the New York fanbase and the question for many is what will happen now? How will head coach Jesse Marsch and sporting director Ali Curtis fix this mess?
However, when you take a step back, this might not be as big a mess as it seems. There are definitely problems, but they seem to be very straight-forward and have clear solutions. At least in theory.
While RBNY has only registered one win in their last eight, there are two distinct sections of those eight; the first five and the last three.
Starting with a home game against the LA Galaxy and concluding with a road encounter at FC Dallas, the Red Bulls managed only six points out of a possible 15 but their play could mostly be described as positive, if unlucky or lacking edge in the final third. Throughout the majority of those matches, New York fans were generally happy with their team's play while being unsatisfied with the results.
Since the start of the second half against the Philadelphia Union on May 24th, Red Bulls fans have been singing a different tune. RBNY has been run off the field, particularly in the second half of matches, when it has coughed up halftime leads the last two weeks at Seattle and Houston.
There has been a glaring difference during the three-game losing streak: the defense has been decimated by injury, suspension and international duty.
Two of the three losses have featured the defensive pairing of Karl Quimette and Roy Miller. That kind of matters seeing how coming into the season they were seen as fourth and fifth-choice at the centerback position.
Against Philly, early season sensation Kemar Lawrence was forced off after 30 minutes with a knock, Matt Miazga is in New Zealand with the U.S. U-20 World Cup team and backline leader Damien Perrinelle has been forced to miss time due to injury and yellow card accumulation. Not to mention the squad has been without first choice centerback Ronald Zubar for virtually the entire season.
By instituting his high-press system, Marsch runs the risk of exposing the defensive line as his midfielders press for turnovers. When it's been Lawrence, Miazga, Perrinelle and fullback Chris Duvall they've mostly been up to the challenge. When the cast has been forced to be shuffled, predictable and disastrous results have followed.
How Can The Defense Be Fixed?
For Marsch and Curtis, the answer is fairly simple: wait.
The Copa America, Gold Cup (which potentially will cost RBNY Lawrence and Miller) and the U-20 World Cup will conclude and players will return. As such, Marsch will have his first-choice defenders eventually at his disposal (even if that doesn't include Zubar at any point).
For the time being, Marsch has to adjust to the players he does have. He cannot let the midfield go balls-to-the-wall pressing and leave his defense exposed when the lineup doesn’t have it’s best talent. March must figure out a way to limit the number of fires his defenders will have to put out.
A Fairly Consistent, But Mediocre Offense
RBNY may be leaking goals at the moment, but that should rectify itself as players return from injury/suspension/international duty. The offense, however, is a different story.
Unless some of the talent on NYRB II like Anatole Abang, Manolo Sanchez, Marius Okekop, Leo Stolz or Sean Davis make a tremendous leap quickly, the offense has no such internal reinforcements on the way.
Even as the Red Bulls were earning victories, this wasn't an offensive juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination. With the May 2nd loss at New England being the lone exception, Marsch has been consistent in starting the Felipe Martins/Dax McCarty/Lloyd Sam/Sacha Kljestan/Mike Grella or Sal Zizzo/Bradley Wright-Phillips six-man offensive unit.
As the chart below shows, there hasn’t been much fluctuation in production by this unit.
|Shots on Target
|Sporting Kansas City
|Columbus Crew SC
|San Jose Earthquakes
|New England Revolution
|New York City FC
|Average in Wins
|16 (+12% v Average)
|6.75 (+35% v Average)
|2 (+53% v Average)
|Average in Draws
|14.8 (+4% v Average)
|4.4 (-12% v Average)
|1 (-24% v Average)
|Average in Losses
|11.75 (-17% v Average)
|4 (-20% v Average)
|1 (-24% v Average)
The gap in offensive output in a win vs a loss is to be expected. However, this isn't simply a case of the offense just needing to play better. There's a question as to how much better can it perform.
When Marsch chose to use that reserve laden lineup in the loss vs. New England, the production of that group fell right in line with that of the Red Bulls' other draws and defeats.
If a reserve laden attacking squad can perform on a similar level to the first-choice attackers, then there is a clear personnel issue. An addition at striker, attacking midfield, or left wing could elevate an offense that has had little difficultly maintaining possession. The team can string passes together but lacks a cutting edge in and around the penalty area.
In MLS, Things Can Change Quickly
One doesn’t have to go that far back in history to see how small the margin of error is and quickly things can turn around in Major League Soccer.
Between mid-May and late-July 2014, the New England Revolution lost eight-consecutive league matches. The Revs ultimately weren’t terrible, and a return to full strength, a maturation of their young players, and the acquisition of Jermaine Jones propelled them to a MLS Cup appearance.
While RBNY isn't one player away from an MLS Cup appearance, it probably is just one player away from transforming itself. Going from a team that looks like it could struggle to secure a Eastern Conference playoff spot to one that will almost be guaranteed postseason matches.
Can someone like James McClean be that missing piece? Possibly.
So, the sky may seem like it’s currently falling for Red Bulls fans but all is not lost, this is MLS. Due to the restrictions of the salary cap, the lack of depth on MLS rosters always lead to rough patches throughout the season.
That being said, the Red Bulls are very much a flawed team with holes and it’s up to Marsch, Curtis and ownership to fill them. It remains to be seen if they will.