The New York Red Bulls’ MLS game against the Montreal Impact on Saturday seemed more exhibition than regular-season game, following two weeks solely devoted to a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League final – a bid the team fell short of achieving with a 0-0 home result on April 10.
The Red Bulls won the domestic battle on Saturday, 3-1, but lost the continental war the previous Tuesday. In its second leg draw – a draw which resulted in a 1-0 loss on aggregate – the Red Bulls fired 20 shots, nine of which were on goal. The conveyor belt of shot-attempts and general chance creation gives the notion of a team that was unstoppable in creating in-and-around the 18-yard-box, but closer inspection reveals that was not the case.
In the second leg draw on April 10, the Red Bulls completed only 49 percent of their passes in the attacking half – which was lower than Chivas – and a mere 46 percent of their passes in the final third – even with Chivas. These numbers for passing, when looked into, add merit to the main point of contention which Red Bulls fans had following the CCL exit: the absence of No. 10 Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra in the starting lineup.
While Sacha Kljestan may have been dismissed as “not a true No. 10” during his time with New York, he was as effective in the role of facilitator as well as anyone in club history, barring, perhaps, Amado Guevara.
After digging into the numbers, throughout all of 2016 (43 of 44 games in all competitions, excluding the home leg of the CCL Quarterfinals against Vancouver, which are lacking in advanced stats), with a suitable No. 10 in Kljestan in the lineup, not once did the Red Bulls dip below 50 percent in pass accuracy in the attacking half. Furthermore, New York only had lower than 50 percent pass-accuracy in the final third three times, with the most recent occasion, May 3, 2017, coming without Kljestan in the starting lineup.
The release of a player like Kljestan – and Felipe for that matter – should come with the expectation that the incoming big-money signing, Gamarra, is a penciled-in starter in the center of the field for any and all big matches. His exclusion for 58 minutes was, undoubtedly, a big factor in the Red Bulls’ elimination.
Head Coach Jesse Marsch cited the need for Gamarra to further understand the tactics, and emphasized how big games require a sharper knowledge of team philosophy. Marsch also added that, late in the game, with more space opened up, Gamarra could be more impactful in terms of finding space.
“That game was a very different game, very different game,” Marsch said. “It was a game about them locking in on us, not having any space, about mobility, about movement up top, and -- it’s not to say that Kaku couldn’t have fit in there and we couldn’t have helped him do certain things. But we made that decision based on what we thought that game would require; and if he came in late, there might be more space and he might be able to make some plays and he almost did.”
Ironically, it seems as though that space-ingenuity that Gamarra can bring was exactly what the Red Bulls were missing, as the Red Bulls had most of the attempts around goal, but none of the cleverness to make more of their half-chances into concrete goal-scoring opportunities.
With Kaku in the starting lineup on Saturday against Montreal, the Red Bulls improved their passing accuracy in the attacking half and final third to 66 and 61 percent.
Listening to Jesse Marsch after the match, there is no doubt the fourth-year Red Bulls coach spent time in recent days re-hashing what got away against C.D. Guadalajara. Marsch took a risk that, even had it proved successful, would not have been praised by fans, in not starting Gamarra. He was not ready to “take off the handcuffs”. It is his right to play it safe for big games, of course, but that’s not an approach often wins applause.
With the result having not gone his team’s way, Marsch sits in a tough position, because, no three points in league play during April can serve as consolation.
The next game with equal ramifications to a CCL semifinal will come at an undecided date, sometime in the end of summer via a late-stage U.S. Open Cup tie, or the end of fall via the MLS Cup Playoffs. But when that time comes, if it comes, the Red Bulls need to recognize that teams will bunker and keep as strong a defensive shape as they can muster, making space to operate considerably condensed, and the need for their playmaker ever so important.