The New York Red Bulls got their 2017 MLS campaign off to a winning start with a testing 2-1 victory over an opponent, Atlanta United, that seemed superior for long stretches. It was a smash-and-grab win: RBNY was down from the 25th minute...
...but never quite out, despite Atlanta's best efforts to apply the knockout blow.
Without showing any great sign of being able to turn the tide, RBNY hung in there against a home team buoyed by a large and supportive crowd - and rallied late to spoil Atlanta's party.
Two goals in six minutes flipped RBNY from well-beaten visitor to unlikely winner. And that will suit the Red Bulls just fine. The team clearly is some distance from its best, but if it can pick up wins in the league while still figuring itself out then it bodes well for the squad's achievements once it does find the rhythm and momentum it is seeking.
Three more thoughts on the Red Bulls MLS 2017 season-opening win:
1. Is RBNY "sophisticated" now?
Jesse Marsch has been talking about adding "sophistication" to his team for more than a year now, but the Red Bulls have mostly enjoyed success over the last two seasons by finding a winning formula and sticking to it. That formula happens to have been a 4-2-3-1 formation, modified to suit the overall RalfBall style of Red Bull Global Soccer.
Efforts to tinker with an alternative plan - a 4-2-2-2 lineup that gets the team into a shape and outlook more closely resembling RBs Leipzig and Salzburg - were unsuccessful in 2016, and seemed to have been shelved for this match. Absent Gonzalo Veron, the player who seems to tie the 4-2-2-2 together, RBNY suggested it would simply swap Alex Muyl into the Argentine's role, but actually spent much of the game lined up in a 4-2-3-1.
After a couple of unsuccessful efforts to make the newer formation work against Vancouver Whitecaps in CONCACAF Champions League, it seemed Marsch had decided to go back to the system he was confident his players knew how to play - at least until Veron returns.
But it didn't work. Atlanta United found the measure of RBNY early in the first half, took the lead, and consistently threatened to add a few more goals. Up front, the Red Bulls seemed incapable of finding the necessary rhythm to test Atlanta's back line. At the back, the team was frequently stretched and forced into any-means-necessary desperation defending.
But Atlanta didn't score a second goal, and Marsch did introduce an adjustment: he eventually went back to the 4-2-2-2. Mike Grella entered the game in the 54th minute for Alex Muyl, but that switch didn't turn the tide. Then, in the 69th minute, Marsch subbed out central midfielder Sean Davis for Derrick Etienne. Etienne took up a forward position, more or less alongside Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Sacha Kljestan dropped back into the midfield engine room with Felipe.
It worked. Both RBNY's goals came after the formation switch. Daniel Royer was very effective cutting from the right, making a nuisance of himself in the box to win the corner that produced the Red Bulls' equalizer (which Royer scored, less because of any formation decisions and more because he is an effective aerial threat off set pieces). And it was another Royer run to the middle of the field that landed Mike Grella in space with the ball at his feet for the sequence that created RBNY's match-winner.
Perhaps we ought to credit most of the Red Bulls' win to a simple stubborn will to win after a frustrating start to the season. The CCL campaign was a disappointment. The first 70 minutes or so of the MLS season-opener in Atlanta were similarly frustrating. The Red Bulls just wanted to find some positive momentum, and they pushed increasingly hard to get themselves going as the game progressed.
But also credit the team's ability to change itself up tactically, to adjust on the field to new modes of attack. It was only the first game of the 2017 regular season, but the tactical sophistication Marsch has been talking about since the 2016 preseason was on display in this match. And for a team that has twice lost its way under Marsch in the MLS playoffs when faced with an opponent able to predict and neutralize the standard RBNY approach, the appearance of greater nuance and variation from the very start of the new league campaign is an encouraging sign.
2. Maybe don't wait so long to make changes next time, Jesse
All's well that ends well, but Marsch made fans and his players sweat by sticking with his basic game-plan throughout the first half. Atlanta quickly figured out it was going to find most joy attacking the large pockets of space the Red Bulls gave up on the flanks. The home team's first goal came from exploiting space on both sides of the field.
It should have had at least one more before half-time, but was denied by Luis Robles' reflexes.
In his half-time interview, Marsch mentioned he would be asking his team to adjust to minimize the damage Atlanta was doing from the wings. But he was lucky his team was still in the game. The decision to wait until half-time to adjust tactics almost cost RBNY the match. The Red Bulls won't always be so fortunate if they wait so long to adjust to an opponent in future.
3. CCL was good for Aaron Long
Maybe the most surprising thing about the starting lineup was Jesse Marsch's decision to rest senior center-back Aurelien Collin. He was replaced by Damien Perrinelle, who arrived late to the squad in preseason and was making his first appearance of the year for RBNY. And Aaron Long kept his place in the lineup.
Long started both the Red Bulls' CCL games this year, and that seemed largely to be down to the fact the squad didn't have any other available specialist center-backs. With Gideon Baah not yet recovered from injury and Perrinelle gathering fitness, the team's options at CB for CCL were Collin, and either Long or 18-year-old Hassan Ndam. So Long was the starter.
Marsch stuck with Long for this game, handing the 2016 USL Defender of the Year his first MLS appearance - but not his first appearance against an opponent from MLS. Long started his 2017 season with two appearances against Vancouver Whitecaps in CCL, following on from three CCL appearances with the first team last season. He did not look out of place against Vancouver and he stood up well to the challenge posed by Atlanta.
If the Red Bulls got any positive out of their lackluster CCL quarterfinals, it was the proof that Long fits right in with the first team. There is a full season ahead, he has and will make mistakes, but he has also quickly established himself as one of RBNY's starting-caliber CBs. And that gives Marsch the luxury - as against Atlanta - of resting more senior players as the year progresses, as well as suggesting that when Gideon Baah is ready to challenge for a start, he will need to win his place on merit, rather than being handed it by a team desperate to raise standards on its back line.