The New York Red Bulls defense has been a mess all season. In giving up 20 goals, tied for second-worst in MLS, RBNY sport a league worst -7 goal differential. Limping into tonight's matchup with the Chicago Fire, New York sports a 3-7-1 record, good enough for 10 points and a spot on the outside looking in on the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Of all the issues that have sprung for Jesse Marsch’s team, the biggest one has been the calamity of injuries to New York’s central defenders.
At one point or another, each of the Red Bulls’ first-four choices at center back; Damien Perrinelle, Ronald Zubar, Gideon Baah and now Karl Quimette, have been forced to miss time due to injury. As a result, Marsch has been forced to stick together patchwork backlines that features outside backs in the center of defense and Ali Curtis to search for help outside of the organization. That help came in the way of Aurelien Collin’s acquisition from Orlando City three weeks ago. Collin is now being tasked with adding experience and a consistent presence in the backline that has solely lacked it.
Variety of defensive lineups have been staggering.
In the Red Bulls’ 11 games so far this season, Marsch has already used eight different center back pairings, five of which have featured primary outside backs (Kemar Lawrence and Chris Duvall) in central roles and only once did the same pairing start together in back-to-back games. Zubar and Quimette were paired together for two-straight games in April; a loss at the Colorado Rapids and home win over Orlando.
Of those eight different lineups, only three of those center back pairings have been repeated at any point this season; Baah & Zubar, Lawrence & Quimette and Zubar & Quimette have been featured together two times each.
Of those pairings that have been featured in multiple games for the Red Bulls, one includes its first-choice left back (Lawrence) and the other two feature a center back in Quimette who would be looked at as the fifth choice when/if all of RBNY’s center backs are healthy and available. By the way, Quimette leads all New York center backs with six starts and the oft-injured Zubar is second with four. New arrival Collin has started each of the his first two games he’s been available.
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Last season was an entirely different story.
In 2015, the central defense was a strength for New York, particularly the pairing of Damien Perrinelle and Matt Miazga.
Perrinelle and Miazga were penciled into the lineup at center back 19 times by Marsch and in those games, NY racked up 42 points. They would pick up another 18 points in the 15 games that didn’t feature Perrinelle and Miazga in the starting lineup and those 60 total points on the season were good enough for the Red Bulls’ to win their second Supporter’s Shield
Those 19 starts back the Perrinelle-Miazga pairing, in which New York won 13 and had 3 draws, far outpaced any other duo. That number undoubtedly would’ve been higher if Miazga didn’t have to miss two significant chunks of time due to international duty; most of June at the U-20 World Cup and most of October with the U.S. U-23s for Olympic Qualifying.
Coming out of preseason, the central pairing was to be Perrinelle and Zubar. That grouping finished second on the team with six starts together while the defensive pairing of Quimette and Miazga made three starts together.
With so little change in the lineup, the backline became a major strength of the team leading RBNY to register the best goal differential in MLS.
Central defense began in 2015 and continued into the new year.
The first domino to fall was Perrinelle tearing his ACL in the playoffs last November.
Next on the list was the January sale of Mizaga to Chelsea. While Curtis was able to quickly secure his replacement in Baah, the former HJK Helsinki man began a long stint on the sidelines following a hamstring pull in Week 3. Zubar had already been held out of the second game of the year due to RBNY’s concerns over playing the brittle Frenchman on Stade Olympique’s artificial turf.
Combine Baah’s extended absence, Quimette’s up-and-down play and the unreliability of Zubar's health, Curtis traded for former MLS Cup MVP Aurelien Collin in an effort to provide New York’s defense with a capable MLS center back that can be relied on each week. With the season getting old very quickly, Curtis could no longer sit by and wait for Baah and Perrinelle to get fit, he needed to bring in a reliable center back to provide some sense of consistency while the unit takes shape.
As Zubar has had difficulty staying on the field, the Red Bulls coaches and training staff have seemed to come to the realization that he’ll always need his minutes reduced and health constantly monitored if they are to have him on the field more often than not. There will be more instances like last week where a slight muscle issue resulted in Marsch keeping Zubar out of the 18 against D.C. United in fear that playing him would result in an even longer absence.
Center back inconsistency has affected the entire team.
Outside of Sacha Kljestan and one magical night for Felipe against the Houston Dynamo in March, players up and down the roster have seen a dip in form from 2015.
Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Grella, Lloyd Sam, Felipe and Dax McCarty have all struggled at various points throughout the year. Add in Gonzalo Veron’s injury woes, and New York’s attack has mostly looked out of sorts. Despite those struggles, there have been a few strong performances by that group that shows that improvement is possible and that those issues are secondary and merely window dressing to the most-pressing issue; New York’s revolving door in central defense.
With no semblance of consistency, the Red Bulls’ backline has been constantly caught out of position and late to react. In deploying it’s eighth different center back pairing of the season in last week’s loss at DCU, New York conceded the first goal of the night in a sequence that looked like what they were; a bunch of dudes who had never played together before and had no idea where to be.
That would be Lawrence and Collin, RBNY's LB and CB, in the middle of this screen grab. What in the world are they doing there?
While the dip in form of those who starred in 2015 has been noticeable, the complete collapse of the foundation of any successful soccer team, it’s central defense, has been the No. 1 reason for the Red Bulls’ woes in 2016.