There are a few teams in soccer that seem to almost guarantee themselves a win simply by scoring first: Leicester City and Atletico Madrid, Premier League champions and UEFA Champions League finalists respectively, are the two current sides with that quality that come to mind.
These teams are helping to bring something akin to the classic catenaccio style back into fashion, reviving respect for the art of making one goal count. Just this season, in the Premier League, Leicester City have had seven 1-0 wins. Atletico have been even more impressive in this regard, racking up 10 1-0 wins in La Liga.
It might be boring, for some, to see a team gather itself behind a single goal and grind it out to the final whistle, but it works.
Preventing 1-0 leads from turning into 1-1 ties (or worse; we're talking about dropping points here) has added 21 points instead of seven to Leicester's EPL-winning total this season, or 30 points instead of 10 to Atletico's just-short-of-the-big-two-in-La-Liga effort in 2015-16. The ability to eke out these wins, no matter how ugly, is what separates top teams from those they beat.
There are, of course, other ways to be a top team; which is to say, there are other ways to regularly win soccer matches and win a league or get to a major Cup final.
The New York Red Bulls don't play in the catenaccio style. Whether you call it RalfBall, or Gegenpressing, or JesseFoot, or Vorsrpung durch Ali Curtis: the current preferred RBNY system is one that is not generally satisfied with a single goal. The RalfBall Red Bulls focus mostly on scoring, and then trying to score again. And then again. And then as often as the time remaining in the game will allow.
Simplistically, catenaccio could be described as mainly sitting back and hoping your star striker can get the 1-0 lead you will concentrate on defending for the rest of the game. RBNY's style is about trying to score three goals while the opposition figures out how to score at all.
In the first few games of this season, the RBNY tactical philosophy has driven the club to extremes: six losses during which the Red Bulls managed to score just one goal; three wins in which the team scored 11 and conceded five. And most recently a draw in what might be the first game this season in which Jesse Marsch did appear to be content with a single goal: after 74 minutes, with the score tied at 1-1, the RBNY head coach withdrew striker Bradley Wright-Phillips and replaced him with defender Chris Duvall. It wasn't quite shutting up shop, but for these Red Bulls it's about as close as they get.
Prior to the Orlando game, the RBNY record in the first nine games of its 2016 season was proof positive of the team's all-or-nothing style: if the team scored, it scored freely and won in a shoot-out or at a canter (4-3 vs Houston; 3-2 vs Orlando; 4-0 vs Dallas); if it lost, it was mostly because it couldn't score at all (RBNY has scored in just one loss so far this season - the 2-1 defeat by Colorado). And all through the rocky start to the year, we heard about the Red Bulls' exemplary passing percentages and chance-creation stats: they never stop trying to score, they just aren't always good at it.
RBNY has generally been a good team since Jesse Marsch took over coaching duties and fashioned his roster with the tools of RalfBall: last season, they won the Supporters' Shield. This season, they have finally started to string together positive results. In total, to this point in his tenure, RBNY has played 44 league games under Marsch. And, slow start to this year notwithstanding, the team has been successful: the system has been working.
Now, consider how a 1-0 win happens: you score first and...that's it - you don't score again, and the opposition doesn't score at all.
Over 44 league games under Marsch, RBNY has scored first and once (i.e. potentially had the makings of a 1-0 win) on four occasions. They won one of those matches, tied one and lost two. That's really not the greatest record; just 4 points out of a possible 12. When the Red Bulls score the first goal, they're best-advised not to make it the only one they score.
A string of 1-0 wins did come during last season's playoffs, but those games have a different dynamic to league matches. The 2015 post-season ended with RBNY frantically trying to score a second goal against Columbus. The goal didn't come, the Red Bulls won their last game of the season 1-0, and lost the series. If we judged teams by their performances in Cup games, we might have a different view of the virtues of the 1-0 win. RBNY played four games in last year's playoffs, won three of them 1-0, and were nonetheless bounced out of the tournament. In a league setting, three wins and three clean sheets in four games is impressive form - the way titles are won; in a format like the MLS Cup playoffs, it is incidental.
Indeed, RBNY would surely have much preferred a string of 1-0 wins to the sequence of scoreless losses they endured to start their 2016 league campaign. But the Red Bulls just aren't built for that sort of soccer: it's not a preferred route for RBNY, for whom scoring the first goal of the game is generally the cue to go hunting for the second.
Which is one reason why the Red Bulls have only had three league games under Marsch in which they have scored first and once. Conversely, Leicester have played 37 league games under Claudio Ranieri in EPL this season, and they have scored first and once in 10 of those. Of those 10, the Foxes have won seven, drawn two and lost one. Narrow that sample to just the last seven matches in which they have scored first and once: Ranieri's men have won five, drawn one and lost one. Over the past seven of those games in which they've scored the first and only goal of the game, Leicester's record is still a very impressive five wins, one loss, and one draw.
Even more impressive: four of those wins came consecutively, as part of a seven-game run from February 27 (when they beat Norwich, 1-0) to April 10 (beat Sunderland, 2-0) in which Leicester kept six clean sheets and conceded just two goals (in the same game - the 2-2 draw with West Bromwich Albion on March 1). And six of those seven games were wins; five of them were 1-0 wins.
With hindsight, that run put Leicester on course for the Premier League title. Absent that spell of consistent and exemplary defensive fortitude, the EPL title would likely reside with Tottenham Hotspur right now.
RBNY won its league title last season in a different way. And they set out this season to continue that style of play. The Red Bulls - again: a high-pressing team - rely on their ability to basically run up the score. If they can't run up the score, then something isn't right with the team and results start to go awry. They are not a team built to deliver five 1-0 wins in seven games; they are a team that wants to score, score and score again.
In 2015, the run that put RBNY into position to challenge for the Supporters' Shield was a nine-game stretch from July to September. The team won seven of those nine, having won six of the preceding 17 matches. Suddenly they were in title-winning form. Those seven wins were all by multiple goals, with the exception of a 3-2 win over Chicago. The single loss in that stretch saw RBNY on the wrong side of another 3-2 score line (against Chicago). Blowouts and shootouts was the pattern. During that run, the one game in which the Red Bulls only scored one goal was a 1-1 tie with Montreal. The Red Bulls didn't tie again for the rest of the year.
A fortnight prior to Friday night's game against Orlando City in Florida, the Red Bulls faced Orlando in Red Bull Arena. OCSC scored first, but were not able to hold their lead. The Red Bulls did what they usually do: tried to score and score and score again. And they scored three goals in 10 minutes in the second half to establish the lead that ultimately secured a 3-2 win.
That is the Red Bulls' way these days. The tactical adjustment Jesse made in the last game against Orlando - bringing in Duvall for BWP and seeming to favor a point over another goal - stands out as an unusual concession to pragmatism. If RBNY start behaving more like a team that backs itself to stop the other team scoring over scoring another and then another: sure, it is starting to behave more like Ranieri's Leicester.
But right now, the only thing RBNY and Leicester have in common is the fact they are reigning holders of their respective league titles.
Yes, the Red Bulls can and should look to Leicester City for inspiration: for the strength of character and discipline it takes to successfully execute a tactical plan over the course of a long season; for the ability to adjust to circumstance and turn a game their way; for the way the team did not play down to the popular opinion that it was, at best, mediocre fodder for more talented sides in EPL. But these are the qualities of any champion club: know yourself and back yourself. RBNY could look at any top team for that inspiration.
Leicester City is a team with many fine qualities, worthy of admiration and imitation. But with regard to the on-the-pitch qualities that deliver wins - the style of play and the tactical outlook that informs it - RBNY is nothing like Leicester City.
The Red Bulls will - and can - win games their own way, not Leicester's way.