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Derby win signals a transformed defense

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Despite theories to the contrary, Red Bulls’ current backline is defending in the press system at an elite level.

MLS: New York City FC at New York Red Bulls
Tim Parker and the Red Bulls defense frustrated David Villa and the City FC attack throughout the game on Saturday. The visitors to Red Bull Arena had only eight shots and one on-target.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls offensive onslaught to start the New York Derby on Saturday afternoon had New York City FC pressed to a pulp. Two goals, in the second and fourth minute, gave the still filling Red Bull Arena the energy of the Big Apple. But while the goals poured in to allow for the three points, an impenetrable Red Bulls defense, which allowed only one shot-on-target throughout the 90-plus minutes, is proving that press does not have to come at the expense of defense.

The Red Bulls’ defensive effort on Saturday started ahead of the backline, with the Red Bulls signature swarm in the midfield setting the tone only 56 seconds in. It was then that City FC striker David Villa attempted an audacious back-heel, which was intercepted by Tyler Adams inside City FC’s defensive half.

Four seconds after the ball clicked off Villa’s heel, the man known for his heel clicks, Bradley Wright-Phillips, was through on goal. His shot was saved, but Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra never stopped his run, and connected with the ball mid-stride to give New York the lead. The eight-second sequence was the beginning of a “nightmare” game for both Villa and New York City. The all-time leading scorer for the Spanish national team had zero shots and only one chance created, before being subbed off unceremoniously in the 66th minute.

“I don’t want to talk about a single player,” City FC head coach Patrick Vieira said after the game. “I think it was tough for David, he didn’t have the support he normally had. We didn’t play as well as we could from the back. I think it was, umm, more a collective nightmare than just an individual.”

That “nightmare” was brought about by the initial Red Bulls press, but compounded by the Red Bulls backline, which barely ever bent, and certainly never broke.

MLS: New York City FC at New York Red Bulls
David Villa was substituted off in the 66th minute, with City FC trailing 3-0. He did not record a single shot in the match.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“David Villa is a world class player, and, what he’s been able to produce since he’s come into this league speaks for itself,” Robles said. “And yet, for us to play the way that we did, to frustrate him, to limit his opportunities the way that we did today; to then make them sub him out in the [66th] minute, because they felt like, they were going to get something else, is a statement.”

That statement reflects on the Red Bulls defense, particularly their backline, with the addition of center-back Tim Parker this off-season looking like one of the shrewdest moves during Jesse Marsch’s tenure as head coach. Parker’s partnership with Aaron Long, both 25-years-old, is only nine games old, and yet, the two are performing like all-star veterans, without even the benefit of a pre-season to train together.

“I think for me and A Lo [ Long], I think we’re getting the hang of one another, you know” Parker said. “And, I think this is the start of something, something really strong.”

When together, either in a back three or four, Parker and Long have conceded a mere 0.77 goals per game in all competitions. When they are alone in a two-center-back pair, that goals allowed number drops to 0.5 per game. Both numbers are extraordinary, considering the lowest number in league play during 2017 belonged to Sporting Kansas City, who had 0.85 goals allowed per game.

The move to trade for Parker on March 2 was a gamble, considering that the player the Red Bulls gave up, Felipe Martins, had been a linchpin in the Red Bulls’ midfield since 2015. But the move was the right one, as numbers show that New York’s defense had worsened year-over-year under Marsch in MLS, from 1.26 goals allowed per game in 2015, to 1.29 per game in 2016 and 1.38 per game in 2017.

This season, the Red Bulls’ league number is 1.25, the best mark under Marsch, even with the 4-3 loss to Orlando City included, in which neither Long or Parker were playing. Without that game, New York are at 0.86 in the league, a one-hundredth of a percent below Sporting’s league-pacing standard last season.

“The one thing that’s a little bit different about this team than years past is, even when there are breakdowns in our pressure, our backline is our best we’ve ever had,” Marsch said. “So, they can defend 1-v-1, they physically can handle moments, they’re really good defenders.”

It is this reliability that sets the 2018 Red Bulls apart. Sure, Marsch’s 2015 team could have jumped in front like the team did on Saturday; as a matter of fact, they did, when Bradley Wright-Phillips scored in the fourth minute of the first Hudson River Derby on May 10, 2015. The difference is the defense, which was in the past, even with talented players, highly-susceptible to a goal against the run of play.

The win on Saturday showed what makes this team different, as City FC did not threaten for the 31 minutes between the Red Bulls second and third goal. With Long, Parker and a strong unit beside and in front of them, the days of fearing during multi-goal leads seem like distant memories, nightmares one might even say.

“You here it often, 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in soccer, being up two goals is the most dangerous lead,” Robles said. “And so, for us to have the mentality to see this out, is a huge step for us, especially as a new group.”