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Red Bulls’ press stifled by heat, but defense still shines

New York’s offense suffered through an early summer adjustment, but the defense continued to inspire

MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls
Red Bulls defender Michael Amir Murillo marks Union winger David Accam, who was substituted into the game on Saturday in the 70th minute.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls slogged its way to a 0-0 draw against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night, amid conditions that offered the first taste of suffocating summer heat at Red Bull Arena.

“It’s the first hot game of the season, [it is] really hard,” a dejected Florian Valot said after the match. “There’s no breeze on the field, [it is] hard to breathe. And with the type of play, the type of tactic we play, with a lot of running, it’s kind of hard sometimes to catch your breath. I think we dealt with it pretty well, but, you could see on the field most of the guys were really tired.”

Broadly, the result on Saturday was a case of dropped points, at home, against an inferior side, following a string of impressive performances. But Saturday’s goalless affair was less a trap game and more the epitome of a high-press team adjusting to playing with a demanding work-rate in high temperatures.

The current trend of heat acclimation can actually be traced back to New York’s home match against New York City FC on May 5, a game in which the Red Bulls tallied four goals. While the offense got all the production it needed in that game, New York benefited largely from two goals in the opening four minutes, masking what was not as sustained an attack, compared to previous home games.

In that New York Derby, the Red Bulls’ offense registered six shots-on-goal and 12 shots overall, which was nearly identical to the four shots-on-goal and 12 shots overall that New York recorded on Saturday against the Union, even though the two results are, ultimately, miles apart.

MLS: New York City FC at New York Red Bulls
Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams (left) chases City FC midfielder Maximiliano Moralez (right) on May 5. The Red Bulls only generated two more shots-on-goal in their 4-0 win over City FC than they did in their 0-0 draw with the Union on Saturday.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Bulls’ May average of five shots-on-goal at home is four less per game than what they had managed at home in the month of March, and six less per game than what they had managed at home in the month of April.

With players – especially those in demanding positions in the middle and outside of the field – adjusting to the hot and humid temperatures, the emphasis on an early goal becomes great.

New York had scored within seven minutes of kick-off in three of its previous four games, but the Red Bulls could not manage a breakthrough in the entire first half on Saturday, despite multiple chances, including a 13th minute curled shot from outside the 18-yard-box by Alejandro Romero Gamarra, in addition to a close-range shot from Bradley Wright-Phillips in the 16th minute.

“Like I said, because it’s hot, I think with each team, the ideal was probably to score early, and then, you know, you could have control of the game on such a hot day,” Wright-Phillips said. “That’s why you see it was nil-nil, because, towards the end of the game, both of us didn’t really have too much energy. And, it’s harder to make half-chances in this kind of weather.”

But even with the offense suppressed, the Red Bulls held the Union scoreless themselves, in a display that showed how far the team has improved defensively from years’ past.

In comparison, during a three-game home-stand in May of 2017, against the L.A. Galaxy, Toronto FC and New England Revolution, the Red Bulls conceded five goals, and three of those came within nine minutes of kick-off. In 2018, in two May home matches, the Red Bulls held the opposition off the scoresheet.

Furthermore, the Red Bulls conceded a penalty in each of their three home games in May 2017, with bulldozing challenges from Mike Grella and Damien Perrinelle against the Galaxy and TFC, and a mistimed tackle from Perrinelle against the Revolution.

Both Grella’s challenge against the Galaxy and Perrinelle’s against TFC, in the 78th and 80th minute of their respective games, seemed to be a result of fatigue, from two players, 30 and 33-years-old at the time, who were coming to an end to their accomplished time in the physically-demanding Red Bulls system.

Soccer: Concacaf Champions League-Club Tijuana at New York Red Bulls
Tim Parker (26) and Aaron Long (left of Parker) have combined to form one of the best center-back partnerships in MLS. When paired together, the two have allowed a mere 0.71 goals per game in MLS.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The decision to part ways with Perrinelle contributed to the Red Bulls trading for 25-year-old center-back Tim Parker, a native of Hicksville, N.Y. and former Big East champion with St. John’s. The idea was to partner him with fellow 25-year-old center-back, Aaron Long, but not even Jesse Marsch could have envisioned the two acclimating to each other so quickly.

Their first game partnered together was in Tijuana on March 6, in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, a stage in which no Major League Soccer team had won on the road in Mexico. So, naturally, they combined to help the Red Bulls earn a 2-0 win, and have since averaged 0.71 goals allowed per game in MLS, when partnered together in a back four.

“Just fully buy in,” Parker said of the reason for his seamless transition. “I think it’s hard to have a style where, in Vancouver I played such a different style, and here it’s something so new. So, kind of, really just throwing myself into it, and, dealing with the ups and downs and the mistakes, and learning from them and continuing to move forward.”

It is becoming more apparent by the game how extraordinary the Red Bulls backline has become. Even as the offense faltered at home on Saturday, the defense stood tall, embodied by a fearless goal-bound clearance from Parker in the 18th minute. While it may be maddening to hear for some long-suffering fans, it is impossible to deny that this defense makes the Red Bulls different than almost any previous incarnation. And maybe, just maybe, that means something.

“These guys [on the backline] have shown, they’re very difficult to score against, and it hasn’t been like that in the past,” Wright-Phillips said. “I don’t remember many nil-nil draws Red Bull have, you know, normally if we’re not winning, we’re losing. This…this is a good, in a way it’s a positive, because, when you go to the playoffs, these are the kind of results you need. If the strikers ain’t doing their job, we’re going to need them to do their job.”