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Kaku, striving for perfection, unlocks mental edge to win midfield battle

The Red Bulls No. 10 reached a boiling point on Saturday, but only needed a half-time conversation with his head coach to settle his spirit. 

MLS: New England Revolution at New York Red Bulls
Gamarra puts his arms out to celebrate Daniel Royer’s go-ahead goal in the 69th minute.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With dark clouds resting over Red Bull Arena and rain sprinkling down, the Red Bulls and Revolution traded possession in a dogged first half on Saturday night. The traveling side from New England outshot New York in the opening 45 minutes, 6-1, forcing an elite save from Luis Robles in the 36th minute, the only shot-on-goal before the intermission.

Contrary to popular narrative, Chris Armas did not feel the Red Bulls were entirely flat from the get-go. And to be fair, Aaron Long, battling a stomach illness, jerked his forehead into a Sean Davis corner kick in the second minute and rattled his attempt off the crossbar. Almost 40 minutes later, though, that set piece header was the lone threat to Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner.

The Red Bulls’ purposeful number 10, Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, received the ball in the 41st minute with a chance to change that. It was the perfect circumstance for New York, with the playmaking Paraguayan international collecting the ball between the halfway line and the opposition’s 18-yard-box, alongside teammates who were making lethal runs forward.

Gamarra had reached 10 assists in his 12th league match on June 23, a 3-0 home win over FC Dallas. In league history, only four players had reached 10 assists in a season in fewer games: Carlos Valderrama (in nine games in 1997 and 10 games in 2000), Eric Wynalda (in nine games in 1997), Marco Etcheverry (in 10 games in 1999) and Landon Donovan (in 10 games in 2010).

MLS: FC Dallas at New York Red Bulls
Kemar Lawrence holds a euphoric Gamarra, following Lawrence’s 48th minute goal against FC Dallas on June 23.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

But, in this late-first half occasion on Saturday night, Gamarra made a rare misplacement with his pass. The mistake was a letdown, but Gamarra exacerbated the situation by chasing down Revolution forward Juan Agudelo, sliding through the legs of the Red Bull Academy graduate.

The tackle was not malicious, but it was ugly. Gamarra looked up toward referee Ismail Elfath sheepishly, not quite believing the sudden rush of rage that had overcame him. He wanted to make amends for the misplaced pass, but his response was the wrong one.

He pounded the grass with his fist, water jumping up from the surface, and shook his head as Elfath, perhaps generously, showed him a card that was yellow and not red.

“I was more frustrated with myself because, I want things to go perfectly, but I understand that I have to control my emotions at times,” Gamarra said through a translator on Monday. “I actually spoke with Chris [Armas] at half-time, and Chris told me, ‘Keep it cool,’ because, it affects the team as well.”

Gamarra looks toward referee Ismail Eflath with irritation, after he was whistled for a foul on Diego Fagúndez in the first half.
YouTube, New York Red Bulls

“I understand that I need to keep my composure, because, it affects the team in a positive way when I do have my emotions in check,” Gamarra went on to say.

Gamarra has not given the impression of one who struggles with maintaining his composure, though. The yellow card he received was only his second of the season, and the rash challenge was far from an indictment of his character, but a result of unfavorable playing conditions and a New England game-plan that set out to frustrate him.

“You can see, they [New England] just stacked the backline,” Robles said after the match. “Every opportunity they got, they just launched it forward. And, when you look statistically, they’re right behind us when it comes to turnovers in their final third and in the middle, the middle third.”

“So, of course it’s very frustrating for our midfielders, because they want the ball at their feet, they want to be able to create,” Robles added.

Half-time gave Gamarra a chance to collect himself, and he came out of the locker room a different player. The rain was pounding the field harder in the second half, but the fleet-footed midfielder moved around quicker and sharper than before. The match was never going to be perfection with the rain-soaked surface, but with a proper mentality, the prolific chance creator had the capabilities of opening up the match.

MLS: New England Revolution at New York Red Bulls
“I was more frustrated with myself because, I want things to go perfectly, but I understand that I have to control my emotions at times.” - Gamarra.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

He began to display his trademark agility and precision, bringing down a pass in the 67th minute, swiveling his body and dropping a cross onto the head of Daniel Royer, all in one swift motion. The sharp-angled header from Royer was fired against the side netting, but Royer would soon get his match-winning goal, and Gamarra his three-point-clinching assist.

The moment of assurance for the Red Bulls came in the 80th minute, with Sean Davis able to anticipate in a manner reminiscent to his match-winning assist last week. The steady midfielder, second on the team in assists, saw Gamarra, first in the league in assists, and delivered the perfect set-up pass. The league-leader allowed the ball to run with him for a moment and then chipped it to an unmarked Bradley Wright-Phillips, a 99th career league goal for the Red Bulls’ number 99.

MLS: New England Revolution at New York Red Bulls
Gamarra (10) shares a hug with Wright-Phillips (99) following the striker’s 80th minute goal, which Gamarra provided the assist on. The goal gave the Red Bulls the 2-0 lead they ultimately closed out.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Since Wright-Phillips’ first MLS goal, on Oct. 20, 2013, he and the Red Bulls have seen tremendous chance creators: from an icon in Thierry Henry, who shifted to a left attacking midfield position in 2014, to Sacha Kljestan, who upon his arrival in 2015 moved to a more advanced space, leading Major League Soccer in assists the last two seasons.

Gamarra cannot claim to be the best of those players, but none of his predecessors were perfectly suited to operate in the middle of midfield like he is. Gamarra is a true “No. 10,” possessing the ability to move forward into a crowded defense and unlock the opposition with one perfect pass.

The impact of the 23-year-old is indisputable and awe-inspiring. When he plays and is unable to provide a goal or an assist, New York is 1-4-1 in the league. However, when he does provide a goal or an assist, the Red Bulls are 9-1. Much like his performance on Saturday, the mark is not flawless. Still though, in a world of imperfections, Gamarra and the Red Bulls are an arm’s length from perfection when the midfielder provides a helping hand.