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Derby defeat not even the apex of a grim week

From a departure to an injury, a costly error and an unhappy player, the Red Bulls had their worst week of the season.

Florian Valot makes a heart with his hands, following his fourth minute goal against New York City FC on May 5 at Red Bull Arena. His performance in the match helped cement his place in the starting lineup, and the Red Bulls went on to dismantle their rivals, 4-0.
New York Red Bulls Communication

The New York Red Bulls started the month of July with the prototypical performance of an elite side, winning on the road while not at their best, against the defending champions, Toronto FC. The gegenpressing men from Harrison were second in the league in points per game after the 1-0 win in Toronto on July 1, having captured 32 points in 16 matches (2.0 PPG). New York’s positive outlook since then has aged about as well as perishables in the summer heat.

For a team that is seemingly cosmically destined for turnover in management, the Red Bulls announced the departure of Jesse Marsch – a coach who had ventured into the uncharted frontier of a fourth season in charge – on July 6, although the wheels had been spinning for quite some time on that move.

Marsch’s lead assistant, Chris Armas, was announced to have assumed head coach that same day, though his first training session as lead man was the prior one. That first practice for Armas was supposed to be akin to any training under Marsch; the word “seamless” was echoed around the team during the coaching transition.

Unfortunately, though, on what already began as a “bittersweet” day for Armas – who savored the opportunity to lead the first team, but also felt remorse for the exit of a friend in Marsch – first-year revelation Florian Valot became unavailable for the rest of the season.

On May 5, in the first Hudson River Derby of 2018, Valot was part of an early onslaught that sent Red Bull Arena into a scarlet uproar, with the 25-year-old calmly finishing a clinical attack in the fourth minute, to give New York a 2-0 lead. However, with the third match against New York City FC this past Sunday approaching, it was confirmed that Valot had torn his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in training on Thursday, a season-ending injury sentence.

MLS: New York City FC at New York Red Bulls
Florian Valot (22) displays the back of his shirt after his fourth minute goal vs. New York City FC on May 5, with Michael Amir Murillo (62) running over to celebrate. Two months later, when the Red Bulls and City FC met again in MLS, both were not on the field, but for different reasons.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

“Your heart breaks for a player,” Armas said after the Red Bulls’ match against NYCFC on Sunday night. “He’s an important player, he’s established himself as a dynamic attacker in this league. You can see that he’s elegant on the ball, and, plays like a 10-and-a-half for us; is comfortable on the ball, brings ideas.”

Valot is no stranger to emotional hardship. The native of Monaco was dismissed from AS Monaco’s second team in 2013, spending time as a women’s clothing store salesman in the short interim that followed, before taking a maverick step to college soccer in the United States.

It took Valot two years at Rider University and then two years within the Red Bulls organization, to see the first-team-light at the end of the tunnel. But, even at the end of a breakout 2017, Valot contemplated an end to his time in New York.

This season began with fulfillment for Valot, but now ends with the feeling of impactful contributions being stolen away. If any person can relate to that agony, it is the newly-appointed Armas, who lost even more in 2002, when an ACL tear in a friendly match against Uruguay ended his dream of playing in the World Cup.

Armas was a member of the final 23-man roster for the United States, and his family already had plane tickets purchased for South Korea-Japan when the non-contact, tear-inducing stride occurred. The injury was devastating, but not by any means the end to Armas, and that is the most pertinent message he gave to his young player.

“I reached out to him that night, the next day, talked with him a few times, and you just offer comfort,” Armas said. “And you tell him, with confidence, you’re coming back strong. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, some of my best soccer was after an ACL injury. So, he’ll come back a strong player physically, and mentally he’s, he’s rock solid.”

The injury to Valot is the second ACL injury for the Red Bulls this season, following the loss of right back Kyle Duncan, who tore his right ACL in a 4-3 loss to Orlando City on March 31.

Similar to Valot in many respects, Duncan came to the Red Bulls with experience in the French soccer pyramid, having played two seasons for Valenciennes FC in Ligue 2. His play was beyond serviceable, as he helped the Red Bulls keep pace in the league while many starters rested for the CONCACAF Champions League.

Now, though, a team whose depth once made filling out the bench roster more difficult than the starting 11 faces questions about what players will fill the emerging holes. Much like the loss of Marsch was painted as a “seamless” transition, the loss of Duncan was seen as manageable, because of the talent of first option Michael Amir Murillo.

But on Sunday, Murillo was left on the bench in his first game back from the World Cup with Panama, and the Red Bulls fell to their metropolitan rivals, 1-0. After the match, Murillo made clear that his intention was to depart for Europe, sending confidence crumbling even further.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls
Murillo (left) last appeared for the Red Bulls in a scoreless home draw against the Philadelphia Union on May 26. The match may have been his last for New York.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“Honestly, yes, I would like to go because it’s a personal dream of mine,” Murillo told The Athletic following the match on Sunday. “Every soccer player longs to play in Europe, and that’s the desire I have. I hope everything gets sorted out and I can go to Europe.”

The match was a slog for the Red Bulls, as a bevy of factors – some clear, such as the narrowness of the Yankee Stadium field and the long ball tactic of new City FC head coach Domènec Torrent, and some unclear, like the emotional weight of recent developments in the locker room – contributed to a lethargic start.

The Red Bulls picked up their shot total in the second half, more than doubling the number of shots from City FC, following an opening 45 minutes in which City FC had twice the number of shots as them.

The blue boys got the shot that counted in the 85th minute, though, and the game finished with the Red Bulls below 50 percent pass accuracy in the attacking half and final third, something they had only done this season against C.D. Guadalajara on April 10 and the New England Revolution on June 2, one an aggregate elimination and the other a loss in the league.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC
Jonathan Lewis (not in picture) forced the defensive mistake, and Maximiliano Moralez (10) made the direct run and routine finish that put New York City FC in front, 1-0, in the 85th minute on Sunday.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

“Yeah look, I mean…we had [322] passes, they had [375], like, there was really no flow to that game tonight,” Armas said. “We actually, I thought, in the second half, had a little bit of flow to it. We had guys with courage, and, and holding the ball and moving and wanting the ball, on a field that’s tight and that’s not always easy to, to want the ball.”

The week itself was painful, whether the team will admit it or not. The scoreline was far from alarming, but everything surrounding the encounter – from injuries to malcontent players – and the minute details of the loss – from the lack of substitutions by Armas to the uncharacteristic mistake from Aaron Long – pile onto the worst stretch of the season for New York.

After Marsch’s last game in charge, he mentioned in his post-match interview that he planned on throwing away most of the game tape. If it was an option, I’m sure Armas would like to erase a majority of the on-field memories from the past six days as well.

“Look, I was pleased with the second half, but, I think you realize that, against good teams, you can’t maybe waste a half,” Armas said. “Because, we knew you had to bring the energy, bring Red Bull football, and we didn’t.”