On a day that was ultimately disappointing for the New York Red Bulls, one of the few bright spots was the performance of Gideon Baah in NY’s season-opening defeat to Toronto FC Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena.
The Ghanaian international, who signed with the team in February, was tasked with replacing the departed Matt Miazga and showed his quality throughout. During his MLS debut, Baah was instrumental in limiting the chances for the TFC offense and, in particular, reigning league MVP Sebastian Giovinco.
As there is with any new acquisition, there was plenty of curiosity on how Baah would perform during his debut for his new team and in a new league. Baah quickly alleviated any potential trepidation as he was the best Red Bull on the day. In leading all RBNY defenders with eight recoveries of the ball and four interceptions (per Opta) the newest face in NY’s starting XI provided stability while exhibiting stellar defensive instincts, positioning, athleticism and composure with the ball at his feet.
With the Red Bulls maintaining the lion share possession and pressing forward, there are always going to be a few potential jail breaks and counter attacks that NY’s defense are going to have to contend with. Baah’s ability to snuff out these potential fires was paramount in containing Giovinco through most of the afternoon. NY’s No. 3 did extremely well in 1v1 situations, most notably in the 13th minute when Toronto was able to get their best player the ball at his feet and room to operate just outside RBNY’s penalty area.
While TFC did their talisman no favors in the first half by isolating him up-top in a No. 9 role like he’s the 6’0" 175 LB Jozy Altidore and not the 5’4" 130 LB dynamo he is, Baah had Giovinco in his pocket for most of the game.
Following the first half where Giovinco only managed a single shot (a speculative effort from the halfway line that Luis Robles easily caught), Toronto coach Greg Vanney made a concerted effort to get this star more touches away from Baah and towards the Ronald Zubar/Sal Zizzo side of the Red Bulls’ backline.
Once he began to work more on the left and away from Baah, Giovinco was able to really make his mark on the game in the final 15 minutes. In registering three of his four total attempts, the man who spent the majority of his afternoon kept quiet by the NY’s new center back, the Italian international hit the post in the 76th minute and converted the game-winning penalty in the 82nd. Both moves, the shot that hit the post and the play that resulted in the penalty call, began with the Giovinco making his move on the left side of the field, away from Baah.
The former HJK Helsinki center back was a stalwart all afternoon maintaining excellent balance and commutation with his partner in central defense, Ronald Zubar. One aspect of Baah’s signing that may be overlooked, and seems to have helped ease his transition into the team, is his ability to speak English. Bringing in an international central defender can be risky if he is unable to communicate proficiently with his teammates. That clearly isn’t going to the case for the Red Bulls as their new signing could be seen numerous times throughout the game shouting instructions and encouragement towards his defensive line mates as they aimed to be keep their shape.
Postgame, the Ghanaian international was quick to praise his partner in central defense and the rapport they’ve already built.
"He’s my teacher," Baah said of Zubar. "He’s the one I listen to. This season is going to be a good partnership between us."
There were plenty of plaudits for the Baah’s performance but none were stronger than from the man who also lines up next to him in the RBNY back four; left back Kemar Lawrence.
"When he got to training, you knew what kind of player he was going to be and what kind of game he was going to have," the Jamaican international said.
"You know he loves to handle the ball, he’s good with the ball at his feet, but he’s not stupid with it. He knows when to play it up field and he knows when to do his thing."
While many fans, who only got limited looks at Baah in preseason games, may have been anxious about NY’s new center back, Lawrence was supremely confident that Baah was going to show his quality.
"Based off of just training with him, I knew he was going to have a great game," Lawrence said.
"He stepped in today and he was smart about everything. He played simple most times, and when he needed to do his thing—dribble a bit or cut a defender—he was on the right track. And he was on the right track with the back four and with the team in general."
Despite a showing that saw their attack raise the most questions, the New York Red Bulls may have already answered some of their defensive questions as one of their newest members looks to be up to the task of maintaining control in one of the most important positions on the field.