The New York Red Bulls went to Talen Energy Stadium expecting a fight from a Philadelphia Union team that had carried a long winless streak into 2017 and kept it going through its first eight games of the new season.
And while RBNY held its own and generated several scoring chances, the team paid a heavy price for not putting the game away when the opportunity was there. In the final 15 minutes, C.J. Sapong bagged a hat-trick to deliver the Union’s first three-point haul since last August.
It got started in the 74th minute: Aaron Long flubbed a clearance and set Sapong running at the back-line; Long recovered sufficiently to get in front of the shot, but it deflected past Luis Robles.
Sapong got his second in the 81st, simply holding steady in the center of the six-yard box while his teammates pulled the RBNY defense from side to side before landing a can’t-miss chance in front of the striker.
Finally, Damien Perrinelle was called for a penalty - no more than an unfortunate moment for the defender, who was trying to tuck his arm behind his back but couldn’t get it out the way of an incoming cross. Sapong took the spot-kick in the 85th minute, and made sure the Red Bulls wouldn’t be coming back into this game.
Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch did not mince his words:
“The result is incredibly disappointing and I told the team to make sure we aren’t hard on Aaron Long and on the defense, because the game was lost by our inability to take advantage on chances and good chances that we created,” he said after the game.
“We haven’t been on the road and created this amount of chances in a long time so not sure why we aren’t able to now finish off our plays and score as many goals as we need to.
But now we have to figure out a way how to create more chances, to get more leads and that’s going to take pressure off our defense. First half was pretty good and we were fine even after down a goal. We were pushing forward and had it under control but it’s crazy to see how we lost this one, 3-0.”
MLS seems to have doubled down on its traditional home-teams-always-win formula this season, but the Red Bulls will be troubled by the perception they keep finding new ways to lose on the road. This match was about as even a road game as the team has played all season, indeed - as Marsch noted - RBNY was looking pretty comfortable for long stretches and was arguably the likelier winner...until it wasn’t.
RBNY has only conceded one goal at Red Bull Arena and remains undefeated at home, having won four out of five in Harrison and the last three straight. Away from home, however, it has lost its last five, after an opening-day win in Atlanta. Worse, goals have dried up. Since scoring twice in Atlanta, the team found the net once in Seattle and once in Houston, and has been shut out on the road for the last three consecutive games. And after a 1-0 loss in Orlando suggested there was a corner being turned, the team has since conceded two in Kansas City and now three to Philadelphia.
While there were bright moments against the Union and the team was arguably as close to a win on the road as it has been since opening day, it is hard to make the claim this was an improved performance. It was a three-goal loss to the worst team in the league.
Not for the first time this season, RBNY heads home to Red Bull Arena needing a quick pick-me-up to prevent the perception of lackluster form spreading to cover its home games too.
On the bright side, Michael Amir Murillo’s second-straight MLS start was an improvement on his first performance just three days earlier in Kansas City. And Mike Grella made an off-the-bench return from the injury that has been troubling him since last season and had sidelined him for about a month. Marsch has more options in his squad after the latest disappointments on the road than he did before. His challenge remains to find the right mix of tactics and personnel to fix the team’s away-day woes. But first, there is another home-stand and some wounded pride that will require attention.