It was a longer time coming than we'd hoped, but the New York Red Bulls finally got back to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over Orlando City. OCSC arrived out of sorts - interim head coach, Kaka unavailable, Cyle Larin on the bench - but RBNY has been finding innovative ways to lose all season. No win is owed. The Red Bulls earned their three points as much by battling their own weaknesses as those of their opponent.
1. Connor Lade saved the day
For much of the first half, the game looked distressingly like the Red Bulls' last home game: plenty of possession, plenty of nice sequences to get the ball up the field, and a lot of ineffective passing and not-good-enough shooting in the final third.
And then Connor Lade seized on a loose ball in the box.
It was his first MLS goal. More importantly, it was RBNY's first MLS goal since Bradley Wright-Phillips found the net in the 52nd minute in Columbus on June 25. And it was RBNY's first MLS match-winner since Mike Grella put the Red Bulls on the way to a 2-0 win over Seattlle on June 19.
Lade's goal didn't magically transform RBNY's attack, but it did change the context of the game significantly. No longer a team struggling to find a goal, the Red Bulls could stumble around in the final third to their hearts' content, safe in the knowledge they were protecting a lead rather than trying to find one.
2. There is a place for five at the back
RBNY's most recent slump has been shadowed by Jesse Marsch's infatuation with playing a five-man back line when defending a lead. It's not a novel tactic, nor one the Red Bulls have taken to particularly recently - Marsch was partial to it last season, and coaches all over the world have been stacking the defense to close out a win for a very long time.
What made five-at-the-back a talking point for the Red Bulls over the last few weeks was Marsch's decision to deploy it unusually early in the game. Against Seattle, on June 19, he brought a fifth defender off the bench as his first sub: Aurelien Collin subbing in for Sacha Kljestan in the 61st minute. Two goals up at home against a demoralized Sounders, it worked. RBNY held its lead, bossed the game, and duly won the match.
He did it again for the next game, on the road against Real Salt Lake with RBNY leading 1-0 in the 63rd minute when Chris Duvall came on for Gonzalo Veron. Momentum shifted irretrievably, RSL equalized within two minutes of the change and won the match with a winner in the 87th minute (a ricochet off fifth defender Duvall).
Undeterred, Marsch did it once more in the very next match: in Columbus, with a 1-0 lead, Sal Zizzo was first off the bench in the 70th minute, relieving Kljestan and setting up the five-at-the-back formation. A late equalizer was conceded after a cross from Zizzo's flank flew across the six-yard box and was netted by Ola Kamara.
Since then, in MLS, there hasn't been a lead to protect for RBNY. The team was comfortably beaten by NYCFC and stuttered to a 0-0 draw with Portland. And then Orlando came to town and the Red Bulls had a two-goal lead by the 60th minute - just the sort of time Marsch likes to make his first sub.
Sure enough, there were fresh legs on the field within five minutes of the second goal being scored, but they weren't a defender's legs. Gonzalo Veron came on for BWP in the 64th minute. OCSC started to find a little fluency and urgency, pressing forward and harrying the defense. Another RBNY substitution came in the 76th minute: still not a defender - Alex Muyl made way for Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Only when the game was very nearly over did Marsch turn to a fifth defender. Damien Perrinelle replaced Dax McCarty in the 87th minute - and the 2-0 win was secured shortly thereafter.
Jesse hasn't given up on five-at-the-back. Nor should he, any more than he should give up on long throws or short corners: it's a common and effective tactic. But like long throws and short corners, some teams are better at it than others, and unless it is a real strength it is perhaps best used sparingly.
Thirty minutes or so of park-the-bus soccer doesn't seem to suit a team drilled to press forward relentlessly for the full 90 if necessary. Certainly not on the road. But a two-goal lead at home with less than 10 minutes to go is a very different scenario. There is still a place for Jesse's go-to defensive posture, but that place might not be first change in a tight game away from home.
3. Rotation, rotation, rotation
In 19 days - from June 15 to July 3 - RBNY played six competitive games. It was a difficult schedule to manage, and the team didn't manage it exceptionally well: two wins, a draw, and three losses. It's over now, but the schedule doesn't really let up for some time yet.
In the 22 days from July 31 to August 21, there will be another six-game pile-up in the schedule. And another set of six need to be squeezed in between September 3 and 27 (25 days). And this match against Orlando is the second in a run of three matches in eight days.
The squad rotation that was necessary to get key players through the last cluster of games is going to be around for a while. Against Orlando, Jesse Marsch gave Sacha Kljestan a rest, pushing Felipe up the field to the attacking midfield spot we all thought he'd been signed to play when he first arrived at the club. If Gonzalo Veron is a regular starter now Lloyd Sam is gone, he too was rested - making a second-half entrance shortly after the second goal went in. Sal Zizzo got a night off while Chris Duvall was allowed a return to the starting right back spot.
There are plenty more days like this ahead. The team's depth will be repeatedly tested over the next couple of months.