It happened again. The New York Red Bulls went on the road, got a lead, and then coughed it up. Just like they did in Orlando on May 6. And in Utah on June 22. And in Columbus on June 25. And against the Union - tonight's opponent - in US Open Cup on June 29. The team's fragile road form drags it back a step every time it appears to have made two steps forward.
It isn't getting old - it was old before it started to become a habit, because the earlier habit of the season was not scoring at all away from home and getting easily beaten. The Red Bulls didn't lose this one. But it felt that way because they carried a two-goal lead as far as the 67th minute and had let it slip by the 68th. It was a new variation on a familiar theme: RBNY's 2016 road woes.
1. Same old problem at the back
Both Philadelphia's goals came from the same source: the Union getting behind the full backs and causing havoc. The first could be put down to one of those things that can happen..
Penalty awarded to the Union. pic.twitter.com/gnpdcxU9yS— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) July 18, 2016
Sal Zizzo gets a little tangled with Chris Pontius, and the referee sees a penalty. Fair enough.
The second was a more clear-cut example of RBNY's biggest problem at the back.
A straight ball down the line gets past Connor Lade, and Fabian Herbers is behind the line. Both center backs come across to try to cut out the cross. Chris Duvall tries to pick up CJ Sapong's run and there is no one at the back post to track Pontius.
The Red Bulls were getting pulled around at the back all night, saved either by the Union's reliable ability to stray offside...
CJ Sapong goal chalked off due to offside. pic.twitter.com/MxGn9WGltF— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) July 17, 2016
...or by a big save from Robles...
Robles with the big save! pic.twitter.com/uZoTnFF3Hw— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) July 18, 2016
...or a massive effort from someone else - in this case Dax McCarty.
Great break from Philly, but check out Dax's run to get back and make the last ditch tackle. pic.twitter.com/TMXT8OH7az— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) July 18, 2016
If the objective of RBNY's defensive tactics is to stifle opponents through outstanding individual effort, then that objective is being met.
But that is a high-risk, low-probability path to a clean sheet. These Red Bulls have established and maintained a lead on the road just once this season - when they scored first on NYCFC and didn't stop scoring 'til they'd bagged seven. On four other occasions - three of them since the team came back from its Copa America Centenario break - RBNY has dropped a lead and points on the road. The broad objective of almost every game - to win - is repeatedly not being met away from home.
This match played out as a tale of two halves: the Red Bulls scored twice in the first 45; the Union scored two in the second 45. But it wasn't a tale of two halves. It was a tale of the Union repeatedly generating the same sort of chances via much the same channels, and finally staying onside regularly enough to make a couple of them count. RBNY was lucky to get out of Chester with a point. The Union's dominating finale to the match - despite playing a man down for the last 20 minutes - was really the story of the game. And the story of the season.
These Red Bulls have played 11 games away from home this year. They have lost seven, tied three and won one. They have five times held a lead on the road. They have converted one of those to a win. They have dropped out of the hunt for three points in the second half in all four of the other games. And in the other six, they never had a lead at all.
This sort of result is not the exception, it is the rule for RBNY's away days in 2016. It does not have to cost the team a spot in the playoffs, if its home form stays generally positive. But it has already cost the team its place in US Open Cup. And that does not bode well for RBNY's prospects in MLS Cup if, as seems increasingly likely, the club is headed for a low seed in the playoffs and the need to close out a series on the road.
2. It's not all bad
There are significant signs of improvement, it should be noted, in RBNY's away-day form. In March and April, the team played four road games, scored one goal and lost them all. In May, June and to date in July, it has played seven away matches, lost only three, and been shut out only twice. Progress.
In this match, the goals came from solid execution of the team's defining strengths: the high press...
...and set pieces.
Kljestan's free kick strikes Barnetta and finds the net. It's 2-0 RBNY. pic.twitter.com/z6SmFJui6M— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) July 18, 2016
If these Red Bulls are predictably fragile at the back, they are predictably effective up front. Everyone in the league knows how RBNY tries to get its goals, and that doesn't seem to make it any easier to stop the team when it is in forward-thinking mode. Which is why...
3. ...Negative substitutions are frustrating
Not for the first time, nor the last, Jesse Marsch seemed a little frozen on the sidelines when faced with a sudden shift in momentum. Sal Zizzo requested a substitution after conceding the penalty to Pontius, so Marsch had little option to make a like-for-like switch, bringing in Chris Duvall. Nothing changed about Philly's rampant breaks down the flanks, and the game was tied before Duvall had much chance to do anything.
Four minutes later, the Union saw Ilsinho - one of its more dangerous attacking players - sent off. Marsch pressed the advantage by...waiting eight minutes to bring Gonzalo Veron on the field. It was no great tactical adjustment: just replacing one attacking player - Alex Muyl - with another.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, nothing really changed in the three minutes between Veron joining the game and the next RBNY substitution: Marsch decided to shore things up at the back by subbing in Ronald Zubar for BWP.
A point on the road is no bad thing. But the team is at its best going forward. It is hard to say RBNY made the most of Ilsinho's dismissal when it spent almost half the time it had playing against 10 men with five defenders on the pitch.