Once again, the Red Bulls started well. Once again, an early goal in the first half gave the club a lead. Once again, when they got to half-time, it seemed like a match that was destined for the win column - and, in this case, a berth in the US Open Cup quarterfinals.
But sadly the Red Bulls took their foot off the gas and fell to their old weakness, the counter-attack. For the second consecutive year, the Philadelphia Union bounced RBNY out of USOC. This time, the Union didn't need penalties: the win came in 90 minutes, 2-1.
The game started well for RBNY, who had most of the early attacking pressure. In the 17th minute, Mike Grella took advantage of a deflected ball that went off the back of a defender and scored inside the far post: his first of this tournament and second of all time in USOC. Solid defense from the club and Ryan Meara in goal kept the Red Bulls on the right side of a 1-0 lead heading into half-time.
But two second-half goals within five minutes by Chris Pontius tore the whole thing down. The first Philly goal came in the 55th minute. IIsinho went down the right side on the counter, delivering a brilliant defense-splitting ball to the middle of the area - Pontius cut in to beat Meara for the equalizer.
The second goal was pretty much a copy of the same thing. Five minutes after equalizing, Jim Curtin found more success for the tactical advice he'd given his team at half-time. RBNY's fullbacks continued to push high and that left the flanks wide open for the Union to go for goal, something that Marsch needs to address in the future and quickly. It was a weakness Curtin noted and discussed with his players before the second half:
The biggest thing is what the Red Bulls were very good at is all ten of their field players will be in literally a 30x30 segment of the field and they press in such a way that they bait you into playing passes and if you try to dribble out or try to beat one guy, you're going to get your pocket picked by the next guy. They have a good way of squeezing you on one side. I think it started when Chris Pontius plays the one left-footed ball, almost blind where you just clip it to the other side because there's literally no one there.
In post-match comments, Curtin went on to explain how his team tried to exploit RBNY's positioning:
We talked about that at halftime, guys executed, we did it about five or six times and what that makes is that their whole group now has to run 70 or 80 yards and now there are holes that start to open up and when Ilsinho and Alberg can find wholes, it's dangerous. I think in the first half it was too much just direct long-ball that we're not even giving our guys a chance to move our line, it was just straight out of bounds and then we're in a cat-and-mouse game, and they have a good team. They're a very good team, I think that was probably the biggest adjustment; the confidence to just almost hit a blind ball to our outside backs to give our offense to that side of the field. It lets us breath, gives us everyone a break.
RBNY's head coach saw a different issue: "It was a case of mentality and not being up for the challenge in the second half and thinking that because the first half was totally on our tems that the second half was going to be easy," said Jesse Marsch.
"We knew Philly, I tried to inform our team that in the second half Philly was going to pick it up, that they had to, that they were going to get laid into by their coach because they got their butts whooped in the first half and then they came out and whooped our butts in the second half. So incredibly disappointing. And another horrible way to give away a game on the road."
Whether out-thought or out-hustled, the Red Bulls were certainly out-played in the second half. Give Marsch credit for putting out a strong lineup to face the Union. He had Sean Davis starting for Felipe and Ryan Meara, who has been starting for the Red Bulls' USL side, got the nod for this match to gave Luis Robles a break - beyond that, it was a full-strength team. Nor could you blame either Davis or Meara for the loss. Both played well, neither was at fault for either Union goal.
Marsch has a few days to get the players back up from another disappointing result and ready to go to the big ballpark in the Bronx for round two against NYCFC. The team is well aware of the quick turnaround - the next game is on Sunday - but also has work to do on the training ground. It is alarming that the club continues to cough up leads when they are playing well, and it will start to threaten RBNY's league position if it is not successfully addressed soon.