The New York Red Bulls were on the road. Again.
The New York Red Bulls took a two-goal lead on the road. Again.
The New York Red Bulls squandered that lead and left with only a single point. Again.
This has become a disturbing pattern for the 2016 Red Bulls. Through 14 road games played in MLS this year, New York has managed only one win (you might’ve heard of that one, 7-0 at New York City FC), six draws and seven losses.
Having only a single road win is cause for concern, the more pressing issue are those six draws. More specifically, the manner in which RBNY got those draws.
In each one of those six road draws the Red Bulls had a lead; in three of them they had two-goal advantages; in all of them they left without the win. Not only that, but in June, New York saw a 1-0 lead turn into a 2-1 loss at Real Salt Lake in MLS action and a week later saw their 2016 U.S. Open Cup campaign come to an end at the Philadelphia Union where they allowed another 1-0 lead get overturned into a 2-1 loss.
What is the issue?
According to Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, it’s mostly in his team’s head.
"It’s almost entirely mental. It’s about the details," Marsch said after his team’s latest 2-2 draw at D.C. United this past Sunday afternoon. "What I said to them is that until 2-0 we were winning so many battles and foot races and aerial duels and managing to find Sacha [Kljestan] so he can put a play together in their end. Then [D.C.] flipped a switch and got more aggressive, and we stopped winning those battles. So how much of it is [D.C.] and how much of it is us? You have to give [D.C.] some credit, but it’s a trend that we’ve seen with us and we’ve got to figure out how to address it."
While mentality is the first thing the coach and fans point to when trying to diagnose RBNY’s road issues, there may be another, and entirely unavoidable, reason for their continued road woes.
There is a fatal flaw built into New York’s style of play and personnel. By pressing hard and high up the field, the Red Bulls place an extraordinary amount of pressure on their back line.
In an effort to completely dominate the middle of the field and pressure their opponents, the Red Bulls push their fullbacks as high up the field as the midfield stripe in possession and look to create turnovers in order to regain possession when on defense. As a result, what starts as a 4-2-3-1 formation functionally operates as a 3-3-3-1 and even a 3-1-5-1. With the outside backs pushed so far up the field, New York’s center backs are required to spread out away from each other in order to occupy the space vacated by the the fullbacks pushing up the field. After the center backs cover that space, it is one of the defensive midfielder’s responsibility to drop back into the defensive line into a center back position between the two.
Due to this strategy, New York gives their center backs a lot of space to cover. And with their ever-rotating cast of center backs, RBNY have not been able to build up any kind of chemistry along their back line. Chemistry and understanding are vital for a defensive line that has to spend so much of the game covering each other and closing up open spaces.
As Damien Perrinelle works himself back to fitness from his latest injury, the 32-year-old Frenchman will join Aurelien Collin and Ronald Zubar, both 30 years old, as Marsch’s first choice in central defense for the remainder of the season. While sporting a lot of experience and guile, the trio offer a limited amount of speed and a potential to fade as games wear on. That inability to cover those spaces have allowed their opponents to exploit them by attacking down the wings in the second halves of games to great success.
Out of the seven MLS road games the Red Bulls have given up leads, they have allowed their opponents to score in the 65th minute or later in six of them. They’re not only blowing leads, they’re blowing them late.
What can be done to avoid this occurring phenomena?
Marsch may be forced to play older center backs, but there isn’t any rule that says he can’t tweak RBNY’s tactics ever so slightly to better control the final third of games.
The New York head coach was left searching for these very answers Sunday afternoon.
"My question as the coach is, 'how do I use my subs? How do I encourage a mentality? How much anxiety do I want to put into it versus how much do I believe that it’s coming and that we’re going to hit a turning point?'"
That turning point may be trying to play on the road as they play at home.
As recently as two weeks ago, New York easily saw out a 3-1 home win over the Montreal Impact by slowing the game down, maintaining possession and making the Impact chase the game. Rather, what’s been happening in these roads games in that they continue to play their frenetic, uptempo game and unfortunately for RBNY, it plays right into their opponents hands. By keeping the game at a breakneck pace despite being up by multiple goals, New York continue to give their opponents more opportunities to exploit their inherent weakness.
These issues pop up in other sports as well.
Think about the basketball team that starts taking quick shots and not running their offense as they’re trying to protect a lead. Or the football team that doesn’t run the ball or complete any passes to keep the clock running and chains moving. Or the hockey team that keeps losing possession of the puck quickly and is forced to absorb pressure for long periods of time. This is how most big comebacks are generated.
As noted on this site in the past, the road results in a vacuum aren’t necessarily a terrible thing. The Red Bulls’ ability to get their offense going on the road can serve them very well in the MLS Cup Playoffs. However, they’d do better by themselves if they could find a way to cure their chronic issue of giving up leads in road games they seemingly have won.
Jesse Marsch is keenly aware of this problem: "It’s tough. On one level it’s a real gutsy, hard, competitive, strong performance and if you can walk away with three points you’d feel good about how we played, but the fact that we managed to let them back in has everybody searching for answers."