The New York Red Bulls won their MLS 2017 home-opener, 1-0. A modest but worthy victory over Colorado Rapids, a team that has made its name recently on being hard to beat. The scoreline preserved the Rapids' reputation, but that was less down to Colorado holding RBNY to an even game and more because Tim Howard was in no mood to let anything get by him.
Howard gets down well to deny BWP. pic.twitter.com/EpewVRNZYr— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) March 11, 2017
Howard put in a stirring peformance that conjured memories of his time as a MetroStar. And RBNY fans got to enjoy the best of both worlds: another look at the Tim Howard they used to cheer for (well, those that were around in Howard's days in black and red) and a win for the players they cheer for now.
For the second game in a row, the Red Bulls' conjured their match-winner from an overlapping full-back's cross into the box. In Atlanta, it was Kemar Lawrence who bounced his cross off a defender who was tracking back to stop BWP from pouncing on a tap-in.
At Red Bull Arena, it was Sal Zizzo who lured Eric Miller into scoring at the wrong end, as the defender tried to keep the ball from reaching Daniel Royer.
Own Goal is currently RBNY's top scorer in 2017: it has scored twice, no player in the squad has more than one goal to his name at the moment. That won't last long simply because own goals are relatively rare, but don't look at the OGs on the Red Bulls' score sheets and assume they've got lucky with the back-to-back wins they've recorded to start their MLS season.
Well, the Red Bulls have been lucky in other ways: lucky Atlanta didn't score three before half time last week; lucky Colorado's attack was not nearly as sharp as its goalkeeper this week. But those own goals were't luck - they were by design. RBNY wants its full backs pushing high up the field to ping in crosses just like those two: crosses that get between the back line and the 'keeper, forcing defenders to run toward their own goal to intercept and clear. And the front four are supposed to be in the six-yard box, threatening to get on the end of those crosses if defenders don't make the necessary interventions.
Running toward your own goal and seeking to make a one-touch diversion of the ball away from what you're running at - that is a difficult task. There is a reason RBNY has twice profited from own goals in its last two games: it has created very dangerous situations for opposing defenders, and twice those defenders haven't quite cleared the danger successfully. Indeed, scoring an own goal in those situations is almost more likely than not. Goals of the sort Zizzo and Lawrence have recently created are not accidents: they are predictable outcomes of the circumstances in which they happened.
RBNY will be happy to see a few more goals like that go in this season, because it will mean the full backs are getting themselves and the ball into the right positions.
And if all Own Goal is good for this year is the first and second league wins of 2017 for the Red Bulls, they'll be happy enough with that as well (so long as the wins keep coming by other means).
Three more thoughts on RBNY's first home win of 2017:
1. We've seen this before, but not often like this
In their current incarnation, the Red Bulls play a lot of games in which they dominate possession. This is largely because giving the Red Bulls the ball is a neat way of neutralizing a playing style that is very interested in pressuring an opponent in possession. RBNY is happy to play without the ball, arguably doesn't really want the ball unless it is forcing a turnover close to goal and launching an attack on the net. So it is often given the ball because being asked to patiently pass and probe for an opening just isn't the game the Red Bulls are set up to play and the rest of MLS knows it.
It's a risky strategy, but each opponent who relies on it just needs it come off on the occasion it is deployed - and it is successful enough to warrant continued use. The Red Bulls have repeatedly demonstrated they can and will struggle to break teams down if they play deep, compact, defensive soccer - and they will allow opportunity for counter attacks.
Montreal exploited RBNY's weakness in possession very effectively in last year's playoffs, winning both legs of the Eastern Conference semifinal between the teams, despite giving up a lot of the ball (RBNY had 63.5% possession in the first leg and 64.7% in the second). Those were the Red Bulls' last competitive games of 2016. In their very first of 2017, RBNY ran into another opponent willing to do the same thing: Vancouver handed the Red Bulls 67.8% of possession, and eked out the 1-1 draw they were happy to take home for the second leg as an advantage for the second leg of their CCL semifinal. And it worked so well, the Caps let RBNY have more than 70% of the ball in Vancouver, and won the second leg, 2-0.
Atlanta United's head coach Tata Martino is perhaps too senior figure in global soccer to think about anything so limiting as simply giving the other team the ball and hoping for the occasional break. His team outplayed RBNY for 75 minutes in Atlanta, but got edged out, 2-1. For the first time in a long time, the rusty Red Bulls got to play their preferred game - they had less than 50% of the ball in Atlanta - and found a way back to winning.
Against Colorado, RBNY was back up against an opponent committed to the tried-and-tested formula of letting the Red Bulls choke themselves with possession. In a way, this game resembled earlier disappointments: RBNY had a lot of the ball, and a lot of shots, but couldn't find the net with anything like the frequency expected of a team enjoying more than 60% of possession.
But this time was different. Not just because RBNY won - though that is the most important detail separating this game from the Red Bulls' recent past - but because Colorado's chances were very limited indeed. The Rapids got just three shots off and only one on target. There were breakaway opportunities, but the RBNY defense did a good job of stifling most of them before they required too much of Luis Robles.
And once the goal was scored, it changed the context of the familiar sight of RBNY shuttling the ball around the final third, probing for openings. The Red Bulls had the lead, they could be patient or aggressive as it suited them. The goal came on the stroke of half-time, and RBNY spent most of the second half enjoying the hunt for a second.
The performance was encouraging. The way to stop teams even trying to neutralize the Red Bulls' game by handing over possession is to make opponents fearful of giving the Red Bulls the ball. And it took seven saves from Tim Howard to prevent this game from turning into a rout. Even with Tim Howard in goal, teams wouldn't expect to see BWP stopped three times from decent scoring positions.
Howard's heroics saved the Rapids' pride but nothing more. The game looked to be RBNY's once the first and only goal was scored. And that is an encouraging sign. The Red Bulls aren't playing particularly well just yet - they need to be better at many things still: mostly, scoring - but they have, finally, won the sort of game they had fallen into the habit of losing.
RBNY needs a few more results of this sort against this sort of tactic to be able to say it has the measure of MLS' preferred RB-killing system. But winning this match, and looking mostly comfortable throughout, was a very encouraging step in the right direction.
2. Derrick Etienne's first MLS start
There are a lot of reasons to remember this game. Luis Robles broke another league record.
Tim Howard was wearing the colors of a new team - finding his old team with new colors, a new name, and a new stadium since he left - but was still very much the same old Tim Howard, which is to say he looked much like the young Tim Howard remembered by MetroStars fans of a certain vintage.
But perhaps this game will not be best remembered as another milestone in the storied careers of two RBNY favorites, but as one of the early markers of the career of a man destined to be a new favorite. Derrick Etienne is 20 years old and does not need to be burdened with great expectations, but it is hard to overlook how quickly his career has moved in the last couple of years.
He made his debut at the professional level for NYRB II at the end of March, 2015. At that point, he was an Academy player destined for college. He did play for the University of Virginia as planned, but in December of 2015 he signed a pro deal with RBNY. In 2016, he made his first-team debut in August in CONCACAF Champions League; made his MLS debut in September against D.C. United; won a Championship with NYRB II, and was handed his first national team cap by Haiti in November. Since then, he's scored his first international goal and now he has made his first MLS start.
The start was well-earned reward for a solid stint in relief of Gonzalo Veron in RBNY's last CCL game of this season, and a game-changing appearance against Atlanta in last week's MLS season-opener. He got 60 minutes against Colorado, playing the Veron role in the attack: to be quick and creative and a threat to break out of traffic with the ball at his feet.
Good turn by Etienne Jr. pic.twitter.com/JOezSGk9jH— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) March 11, 2017
Etienne isn't expected to get a lot of time in MLS this season, but he has already shown he can fit right into the first team and has ability to turn the tight spaces RBNY's 4-2-2-2 formation encourages to his side's advantage.
The 4-2-2-2 couldn't sustain itself in Veron's absence last season and was ultimately abandoned in favor of a formation that better suited the talents of the more reliably fit players in the squad. Against Atlanta, with Muyl starting in Veron's place, the team reverted to the 4-2-3-1 of old for long stints. But Etienne is a viable option up front in a role similar to that of Veron. There was fluidity against Colorado, with the 4-2-3-1 appearing and then disappearing as the Red Bulls probed for opening. But the team looked relatively comfortable from the start in the 4-2-2-2 without Veron for perhaps the first time in a competitive game.
Etienne's first start in MLS might be his last for a while (depending on when Veron is fit and how RBNY's latest addition - Fredrik Gulbrandsen - is deployed), but he has proven he can handle another when called upon. And his career advances in search of its next milestone.
3. Fredrik Gulbrandsen - already
RBNY announced the signing of loanee Gulbrandsen on Friday, March 10. Per his own words to Norwegian outlet Verdens Gang, that was also the day the Norwegian forward flew to New York, having finally secured the necessary immigration clearance to make his long-expected move to America.
So it was a surprise to see Gulbrandsen named in the match-day squad for this game - and an even bigger surprise to see him take the field.
New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) March 12, 2017
It was only a handful of minutes at the end of the game, subbing in to relieve BWP with the match all-but won and the job simply to keep Colorado sufficiently preoccupied to stop the ball from going in RBNYs net. No great conclusions can be drawn about Gulbrandsen's future in MLS from his first appearance.
But it is telling perhaps that this RalfBall-est of RalfBall loans was quite literally match-ready from Day One. Gulbrandsen is fundamentally an out-of-favor striker from Salzburg pitched over to the New York branch of the Red Bull Global Soccer family to find a little playing time and form. He might be with RBNY all year; he might head back to Austria in the summer: all depends on how things work out for him. But no time was wasted in getting him a feel for his new surroundings.
The off-the-pitch hallmark of RalfBall is synergy: within each club and across the entire network of Red Bull Global Soccer. And RBNY's starting lineup for this game was a testament to that synergy.
Center back Aaron Long was a career USL-er (and a midfielder) when he landed at NYRB II last season; now he's a first-teamer after a year in the reserves learning RBNY's system and a new position. Derrick Etienne is an Academy product picked to start over another Academy product, Alex Muyl. Sean Davis is another Homegrown Red Bull. Daniel Royer landed with RBNY as a veteran of the Austrian Bundesliga with an understanding of the Red Bulls system gleaned from having played and watched a lot of RB Salzburg, and clear expectations of what would be asked of him at RBNY.
And Fredrik Gulbrandsen is a match-ready attacking option flown in from Austria to bring further depth to the squad and to add pressure on the incumbent starters to justify their places in the lineup.
Last year's RalfBall loan was Omer Damari, a similarly out-of-sorts striker who was more or less cast out by Leipzig. He didn't have great luck staying fit while at RBNY and his stint with the team was ultimately short and underwhelming. But RBNY hasn't given up on raiding its siblings for a boost to the squad, and the speed with which Gulbrandsen was ushered into a uniform and onto the pitch suggests the club might be getting a little better at figuring out how to get the best out of the RB Global Soccer system at its disposal.
We don't yet know if Gulbrandsen will work out for RBNY or not, but it looks like we'll find that out quickly. And just as the club seems to be getting braver and better at embracing its youth development rhetoric (reckless, even, if you take the view punting Dax McCarty out to Chicago to let Sean Davis and Tyler Adams get more playing time was a little hasty), so too it appears to be figuring out how to make more efficient use of the synergy loan. Step one is loaning players ready to contribute from the start and having sufficient confidence in scouting and the system to give them that chance. That seems to have been accomplished with Gulbrandsen's signing and near-instant debut.