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“Resilient” cardiac bulls gloss over a flawed game-plan

After two resolute wins, the Red Bulls changed players and shape in a way that buried them, but their fight-back almost salvaged the night.

MLS: Columbus Crew at New York Red Bulls
Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra and Daniel Royer (77) shake hands after the Red Bulls’ 69th minute goal, in which Gamarra played a delicate cross to Royer, who leaned back and headed the ball into the net.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After a come-from-behind draw at Mapfre Stadium on June 9, the New York Red Bulls thought it had discovered the blueprint to beat a Columbus Crew SC team coached by Gregg Berhalter, the third-longest tenured head coach in Major League Soccer, and a leading candidate for the vacant position of United States men’s national team manager.

But, within 31 minutes on Saturday night, Chris Armas and his team stood in disbelief, as an unfortunate own goal from Sean Davis exacerbated an already nightmarish start. Inconceivably, the most dominant home team in the league since opening Red Bull Arena in 2010 was behind by three goals, with over 14 minutes of the first half still to play.

“Yeah, I mean, in a way it’s kind of funny because, it flips, right,” Robles said after the match. “Because, when we were in Columbus, in the first half, in the first 45 minutes we played four in the back, and, they were getting all sorts of chances on the side and just breaking us down. And, we go to five at the back and shut them down.”

The match was a third in eight days for the Red Bulls, following a weekend home win, 2-0, against the New England Revolution, and a midweek trip to D.C. United, where they also prevailed, 1-0.

The turnaround for Columbus was made even shorter when outrageous rain caused Wednesday’s kickoff in Washington, D.C. to be pushed back, from 8 p.m. to 9:27 p.m. The delay meant that when Aaron Long finished his media session in the visitor’s locker room of Audi Field, the clock had already ticked past midnight, Thursday morning.

The team then traveled straight from Audi Field to a nearby train station, where they endured the four-hour ride north, arriving home in the wee hours of the morning. Immediately upon stepping off the platform, the focus shifted toward Crew SC.

In an attempt to earn nine points out of nine, Armas scrambled to recreate the second half from that June meeting between the Red Bulls and Crew SC in Ohio. But, as it turned out, tailoring his game-plan based on last month’s encounter was like preparing for the winter by taking out what clothes worked in the summer.

Following training last Friday, Armas spoke of the challenge Columbus presents, with a pacey, technical roster and a smart, flexible coach in Berhalter.

“Yeah, look, Columbus can play through our pressure at times, we’ve had to suffer through that,” Armas said on Friday. “And, you know, them playing direct, it’s not just long balls. You know, usually it involves a little more thought than that, whether it’s diagonals or some other intricacies of them playing long and direct. And, they’ve been effective.”

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC
Bradley Wright-Phillips jostles with Crew SC midfielder Artur for the ball, during the Red Bulls’ visit to Columbus on June 9.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

“In the end, they’re going to be them and we’re going to be us. And, making plays and being up for it will probably be the difference,” Armas added.

Despite Armas’ words, though, the Red Bulls were not themselves on Saturday, changing shape and personnel in a way that contributed to the three-goal hole they ultimately found themselves in.

Switching to five at the back had been successful in the second half in Columbus. But, as was the case when the Red Bulls shifted to four on Saturday, Columbus had the lead, and was therefore operating conservative to an extent.

Despite starting out with three center backs on Saturday, New York conceded more space in the center of defense than it normally does with two. For instance, on the opening goal, albeit on a set piece, center back Aurélien Collin was outleaped by Crew SC forward Patrick Mullins, who headed the ball to teammate Jonathan Mensah, who was unmarked 12 yards from goal.

MLS: Columbus Crew at New York Red Bulls
Crew SC forward Partick Mullins (32) celebrates with defender Jonathan Mensah (4), following Mensah’s opening goal in the seventh minute that he provided an assist on. The goal was Mensah’s first of the season.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In addition, the lack of support for Davis, who operated alone in a deep-lying position, was a flaw to the midfield configuration. The team is 1-4 in five matches this season when operating with a lone holding midfielder from the start, with the one win coming in a back-and-forth, 3-2 showcase against the LA Galaxy, on Apr. 28.

The most recent occasion of using a loan defensive midfielder came in the Red Bulls’ Open Cup elimination to the Philadelphia Union on June 16, a match that drew more parallels to Saturday than the match that took place one week prior to it in Columbus.

Similar to Saturday, the Red Bulls knockout stage encounter was the last of a crowded stretch, a fifth game in 15 days. Showing weariness, New York began the Round of 16 match by contributing uncharacteristic defensive lapses. If Philadelphia, mainly striker Cory Burke, was more clinical, it too could have had a multi-goal lead after 45 minutes.

Moreover, in both the Open Cup elimination and the league loss this past week, Bradley Wright-Phillips started on the bench. He came on while the team was trailing by two against the Union, scoring the goal that cut the margin in half, before the Red Bulls ultimately fell, 2-1.

Meanwhile, in the most recent comeback effort, Wright-Phillips arrived in the six-yard-box when Mensah, who scored the opening goal, inadvertently deflected a Daniel Royer cross into his own net in the 50th minute.

MLS: Columbus Crew at New York Red Bulls
Bradley Wright-Phillips subbed on to begin the second half and was at the center of the Red Bulls’ first goal, ultimately given as an own goal to Jonathan Mensah, in the 50th minute.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Mensah’s own goal was the catalyst for a downhill second half press for the Red Bulls, who added a second goal in the 69th minute via a Royer header. The response was trademark for the only team throughout the league that has not lost a match by more than one goal.

“Yeah, the fighting spirit in this group is amazing,” Robles said after the match. “It’s a resilient group, it’s a competitive group. And, in my gut, I thought we were going to get 3-3, I thought that we were going…to get that third goal, and, Red Bull Arena was going to be on fire.”

Agonizingly, though, multiple chances inside the 18-yard-box to equalize were squandered, from an 80th minute attempt from Royer that sailed over the crossbar, to an 85th minute chance in which Alex Muyl booted the ball straight into traffic, while the rest of the goalmouth was open.

The loss is a long way from a signal of crisis, but it does raise concern about several components: from the current status of the team’s depth, to the proper management of the team when fixture congestion presents itself. There is also a big question of how the midfield will line up, with Davis, Tyler Adams and Marc Rzatkowski all seemingly preferred by Armas.

Two things are for certain, though: Davis needs a deep-lying midfield partner, and the team is best when operating with four at the back.