Nuance. Objectivity. Finding the middle the ground.
These are terms and phrases that very often seem extremely difficult to find in the world of sports fandom and punditry. It’s very easy to take the extreme side of the argument when commenting on the actions in our sports arenas. Due to the emotional nature of being a sports fan, people are much more likely to have a strong opinion one way or the other rather a more pragmatic take.
What does this have to do with the 2016 New York Red Bulls?
With a 1-3 record, a lack of goal-scoring and a slew of injuries it’d be easy to panic over NY’s prospects this season but all hope isn’t lost. Not yet.
And while it’s way too early to worry about the season being a failure, there are plenty of real concerns as the Red Bulls return home to host Sporting Kansas City this Saturday evening at Red Bull Arena.
Let’s not panic because this is a team that plays in MLS, a league where everyone has a shot.
The first and foremost reason for Red Bulls fans to not panic is, simply, MLS itself.
Featuring a postseason playoff format to determine the champion and one that allows entry to 60% of its teams, one only has to avoid a historically poor start to find themselves completely out of the playoff picture come midseason. And even that, may not guarantee postseason exclusion.
As a league with painfully low salary budgets for first team rosters, the quality of teams in MLS can only vary so much. As a result, the abilities of the teams are much more closely cobbled together than in leagues that feature larger gulfs in team wages. No team in MLS becomes an unstoppable juggernaut, and even the best teams in the league will experience the odd three or four-game losing streak at some point.
Remember, the 2015 Supporters Shield-winning Red Bulls lost four-straight (and went winless in five) from the end of May through the beginning of June. That was a team that would ultimately have MLS’s best record and highest goal differential. So, no one is going to run away and hide while NY tries to work themselves out of their early-season funk. We’re five weeks into the season and there’s only two teams left that haven’t lost a game yet and one of them, Real Salt Lake, only find’s themselves in third place of the Western Conference.
There’s time for the Red Bulls to get healthy and work through their goal-scoring issues. Hell, with a win on Saturday, RBNY will find itself right back into playoff position in the East. This league is quicker and ridiculous, teams will always be given a shot.
All the Red Bulls can do about their injury-crisis is wait and hope.
Leg injuries to Gideon Baah, Ronald Zubar and Kemar Lawrence leave NY without three of four starting defenders (not to mention Damien Perrinelle, a starter at center back last season, who continues his comeback from 2015 knee surgery) will seriously test RBNY’s organizational depth. While the injuries are a monster, Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch are seemingly dealing with them by simply waiting for the injured to get healthy and to hope that the players they have at their disposal can get the job done. It’s next man up and hopefully players like Karl Quimette, Conor Lade, Chris Duvall and Zach Carroll can step up to hold down the fort while the injured are on the mend.
Saying that all NY can do in response to the rash of injuries that have hit them, particularly to the defenders, is to wait and hope may seem like a lack a plan. However, it’s not quite that simple. Not doing anything during this time may seem like the Red Bulls have no answers, or worse are unwilling to address the issue, but waiting and hoping is probably the best course for Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis to take.
Since signing a completely new and MLS-ready backline isn’t a realistic option, the Red Bulls are going to try to navigate through these next few weeks with whom they already have in house. Calls for acquisitions from outside the organization are probably going to be left unanswered as evidenced by the fact that trialist Amobi Okugo has yet to be signed even as it seems like bringing a proven MLS defensive midfielder/center back seems like a no-brainer.
The loss of Gonzalo Veron remains a major issue, the front attacking four of Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Grella, Loyd Sam and Sacha Kjestan have proven themselves capable of carrying the scoring load as NY’s awaits the return of it’s Argentine designated player.
A positive and a negative.
If there is one positive to take out of their losses this season, it’s the fact that the Red Bulls aren’t being dominated or played off the field. Talent is clearly not an issue with this group but what must be rectified and tightened up is NY’s game management. RBNY are losing games in margins. The Red Bulls have been lacking in this area thus far and it’s leading to losses.
While their overall play hasn’t been overly poor, the Red Bulls have been lacking in key moments that have led to their doom.
After Gideon Baah had shut down Sebastian Giovinco for most of the afternoon int he season opener, a moment of defensive imbalance found Zubar singled-up on Giovinco on a play that led directly to Toronto’s game-winning penalty. http://matchcenter.newyorkredbulls.com/matchcenter/2016-03-06-new-york-red-bulls-vs-toronto-fc/details/video/58831
- After Gideon Baah had shut down Sebastian Giovinco for most of the afternoon int he season opener, a moment of defensive imbalance found Zubar singled-up on Giovinco on a play that led directly to Toronto’s game-winning penalty.
- In Montreal, a careless giveaway by Baah resulted in the Impact’s game-winning goal.
- Diego Fagundez's game-winner last week has been a much-talked about flashpoint in MLS circles.
The Red Bulls should have the ability to clean up these mistakes and eliminate the sloppiness.
A very real concern now and for the future.
Among injuries and singular lapses being main themes thus far this season, the one that can potentially be the biggest cause of concern of them all has been the lack of goals and clear scoring opportunities. Other than the four-goal outburst against the Houston Dynamo in their only win, RBNY have been held scoreless with Bradley Wright-Phillips being held of the scoresheet.
Teams are bunkering, inviting NY’s pressure and looking to pounce on mistakes. And, thus far, that’s been successful for the Red Bulls’ opponents. NY are being allowed to press forward in attack and control the ball for large portions of each match. While this is producing a comfortable possession and passing advantage overall, that advantage begins to shrink sharply as the NY brings the ball into the teeth of their opponents’ defense in the final third.
In the three losses against Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and the New England Revolution, RBNY have held onto the ball 55.3% of the time while sporting passing advantages over the opposition in both total number of passes completed (1,450 passes vs. 1,180) and competition percentage (72% vs. 67%).
The Red Bulls are maintained these advantages in the attacking half completing 968 passes while TFC, L’Impact and NERevs completed a total of 764 with NY, once again, completing at a higher clip (63% vs. 58.33%). NY have even been able to get off nearly as many shots (35 vs. 36).
However, as RBNY advances into the final third of the field, this is where we see the bunker causing problems for NY as evidenced by only getting nine shots on goal in their losses while their opponents were abel to get 16 on net.
What are comfortable advantages towards the middle of the field are being snuffed out as the Red Bulls have only completed 74 more passes (463 vs. 389) with a completion percentage a mere 1.67% (57% vs. 55.33%) better than their opponents in this area of the field in these losses. For NY to be successful they not only have to possess the ball, they have to be able string an even greater number of completed passes and at a much higher rate.
The question is obviously; how do they do this? That’s the big long-term question that the Red Bulls will have to answer and for their sake, hopefully the eventual return of Veron will allow NY to pull teams a little further out of their bunker and open up the passing lanes for the midfield in an effort to get the ball to Wright-Phillips with some space to operate.
Time can heal all.
As the New York Red Bulls embark on the remaining 30(!) games of the MLS season their are plenty of issues and points of concern. Luckily, with so much time left and a roster that has proven it can be one of the best in MLS all is nowhere near being lost.