From the moment the 2016 MLS season kicked off, things just have just not gone the way of the New York Red Bulls. Injuries, poor and sloppy play have resulted in a early stumble to a 1-4 record.
When taken on it’s own, Saturday night’s loss to Sporting Kansas City wasn’t a travesty. In fact, there were some things that can be taken as positive signs in a season-long journey. However, when placed into context with RBNY’s other loses this season, there are some major red flags.
Since Jesse Marsch was named head coach last season, many of the Red Bulls’ loses could be chalked up to a handful of clear-cut reasons; lack of finishing and defensive lapses being the chief culprits. But as the 2015 came to a close and 2016 opened, MLS opponents have been showing their adjustment to NY’s high-press and fans have bemoaned Marsch’s apparent lack of response to that fact. And while the league has seemingly adjusted to NY’s style of play, Marsch has a two-pronged issue as the very players who helped turn the Red Bulls into a machine in 2015 are also the cause of their 2016 malaise.
So, as NY heads out west to for a two-game road trip to face the San Jose Earthquakes Wednesday night and the Colorado Rapids Saturday, let’s dive into some of their issues.
Dax McCarty: Has not been very good.
The leader. The heart and soul. The captain.
Dax McCarty has been one of the best players in the history of the MetroStars/Red Bulls franchise. In 2015, Marsch’s system put McCarty in a position to not only be a successful destroyer in midfield but also transition into being the key to the engine of NY's offense.
One of the major keys in RBNY’s success in 2015 was the stellar play of McCarty and Felipe Martins in a versatile dual-destroyer role that would also see the defensive midfield pairing switch back-and-forth into more advanced roles throughout game. This is was so successful not only because of their tackling and ability to gain possession, but also their penchant for turning that possession quickly into offense. In order to do this, both were required to be able to connect on passes going up the field towards goal and this is where McCarty has struggled thus far in 2016.
Despite completing more passes per game, McCarty’s competition percentage is down while his key passes per game have reverted to pre-2015 levels when he was strictly a destroyer for Mike Petke.
All told, at least by the measure of one statistical archive, in 2016, RBNY’s leader on the field has gone through one of poorest stretches in a red and white shirt.
Since WhoScored.com began tracking MLS games in 2013, McCarty is currently sporting some of his worst measurables.
Let’s took a look at his pass chart from the Sporting Kansas City game. While Dax was very successful passing in the middle of the field, a vast majority of those connections were either sideways or backwards. When he attempted passes in more advanced positions of the field, McCarty was extremely wasteful.
Not only is McCarty struggling to connect at the key moment, he’s struggling in nearly all passing situations. His accurate long balls are way down, inaccurate long balls are up and while his accurate short passes are up, so are his inaccurate short passes.
Usually a major reason for the Red Bulls’ controlled position, Captain Dax has also been uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball as his bad controls per game have spiked in 2016, up 23% from 2015 and his career standard.
This is all adding up to, so far, the worst overall season McCarty has had in New York.
What may be even more worrying is that despite all of this McCarty is still the No. 2-ranked player on the RBNY roster. *Everyone* is struggling.
So much carnage below...
Lloyd Sam is either hurt or has simply lost a step.
Much of NY’s offense has been predicated on getting the ball to the feet of their wingers either at speed or isolated against a single defender to take them one-on-one. While the ultimate goal is to have two speedsters with technical ability on the wings, having two wingers with technical ability and one with speed was more than enough to help spearhead MLS’s highest-scoring offense in 2015. Throughout much of the second half of last season, I made note that in order for the Red Bulls to hit their high-water mark, Gonzalo Veron was going to have to unseat either Mike Grella or Lloyd Sam with the hope that it’d be Grella.
Why Grella? Despite having nearly identical statistical seasons in 2015, Sam’s game had an element of speed that Grella - one-on-one technical ability notwithstanding - did not.
However in 2016, it seems that Sam has lost a step as well. While still possessing a great touch, as evidenced by his delicate pass in the 20th-minute onto the head of Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sam’s inability to beat defenders at speed has resulted in him using a serious of feints and cut-backs to get free. While this will work on occasion, including earning a penalty in the 63rd minute, this tends to grind NY’s attack to a halt and takes away its quick-strike ability.
Having two relatively slow wingers when the strategy calls for speed is a recipe for disaster. One has to wonder if Marsch will eventually give a look to Derrick Etienne who has been a standout thus far for New York Red Bulls II in USL play. Etienne’s speed and control could be the perfect antidote to RBNY’s stagnant attack.
BWP can’t buy a goal right now but it won’t always be this way.
There have been injuries and poor play but the most-disappointing player thus far in 2016 has been Bradley Wright-Phillips.
One of the most prolific goal scorers in MLS history, the English striker has failed to make it onto the scoresheet despite being agonizingly close on numerous occasions. And things couldn’t have possibly gone worse for BWP on Saturday night.
As Wright-Phillips was having his most active game of the year, it was obvious to see that goal-scoring drought has become a source of frustration. Despite showing up in all areas Sporting Kansas City’s 18-yard box and racking up 10 shots on the night with four of those on net, BWP would only be teased as he was unable to find the back of the net each time.
That frustration reached a zenith in the 64th minute.
Seemingly given a golden opportunity to open up his 2016 account, Wright-Phillips’ penalty was saved by SKC’s Tim Melia. In such a funk and clearly overthinking things, BWP so telegraphed his penalty that Melia was able to take a full step towards the side of the net in which he was aiming to make a fairly easy save on a shot that was well struck.
Last year, in an effort to shake things up as the team sputtered in mid-June, Marsch put Anatole Abang into the starting lineup with White-Phillips out of the wing. Could this be something Marsch tries again to relieve some of the pressure on his star striker and get him off the snide?
Despite not finishing any of his chances this year, there isn’t much reason to be concerned over the long haul. Outside of the truly elite finishers, strikers all over the world go through scoring droughts and Wright-Phillips is no different. BWP has never been clinical (if he was, he wouldn’t be playing in MLS) but he has a track record of success in a Red Bulls uniform and the fact that he’s still finding himself in position to score is a positive sign that he won’t be lost in the wilderness forever.
Oh, but that thing where he takes penalties? Yeah, that needs to stop for a long while.
The backline is an unorganized mess but there’s little to do but sit back, wait and hope.
With the litany of injuries suffered by Red Bull defenders, Marsch put together a back line that had only played together for the final 33 minutes of last week’s game against the New England Revolution and had multiple players (Sal Zizzo at right back and Chris Duvall at center back) play positions that they have not for most of their careers.
RBNY’s makeshift backline of Conor Lade, Karl Ouimette, Duvall and Zizzo were able to limit SKC to seven total shots and only three on target but were punished severely in two critical moments that led to goals.
Following a 16th-minute Lade foray into attack, leaving him at the top of the SKC penalty area, Ouimette recklessly presses up on Graham Zusi (who already had midfielder Sean Davis eyeing the playmaker) along the sideline in Sporting’s own half, throwing the Red Bulls’ defensive shape completely out of whack. The sequence ends with an easy tap-in goal for Benny Feilhaber as Kansas City comfortably converted the numbers advantage, overwhelming Zizzo and Duvall with an onrushing Dominic Dwyer, Feilhaber and Connor Hallisey.
This type of goal is the direct result of an inexperienced back line. While frustrating, it’s to be expected that these types of mistakes will be more likely to occur until Gideon Baah, Damien Perrinelle, Kemer Lawrence and Ronald Zubar can return. In the mean time, it’s up to Marsch and the players that are available to clean things up quickly.
Duvall’s inexperience at center back was clearly evident on SKC’s second goal of the night as Dwyer was able to put him in a blender to score in the 60th-minute.
When being deployed at full back, Duvall rarely has to deal with players playing with their backs against him in post up situations and Dwyer did just that in collecting Saad Abdul-Salaam’s throw-in and easily outmaneuvering the third-year player out of Wake Forest and slotting past Luis Robles.
As I said last week, the unfortunate reality is that the backline is only going to fix itself over time.
Some of the other issues, however, will need different solutions. How will Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls fix things?