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Are the Red Bulls treading water or adapting for the playoffs?

New York are changing under Chris Armas, but is it for better or worse? 

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC
A rare bright spot on Wednesday, Bradley Wright-Phillips opened the scoring with his 200th career goal in his 200th appearance with the Red Bulls. The lead was fleeting.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK – The New York Red Bulls were able to steal a set piece equalizer in Vancouver on August 18 while playing with only 10 men, but it turned out New York City FC was capable of even better on Wednesday night in Yankee Stadium, coming back and holding on for a 1-1 draw despite two red cards.

“I don’t know if there’s a positive,” Bradley Wright-Phillips said after the match. “I think, they go down to nine men in the end, and, they look better than us somehow.”

“I think first half we were good, we controlled the game, we were the better team,” Wright-Phillips, who scored the Red Bulls’ opening goal in the 37th minute, added. “And then, they go down two men and it all changes. I don’t get it, it wasn’t good enough.”

Playing on the small, square peg of a field inside The House That Steinbrenner Built can somewhat explain the lack of advantage while holding a numerical advantage. However, too many factors went against City FC to spin the loss of two points in a positive way, even if the result meant the Red Bulls ended a three-match road-stand unbeaten.

Still, the result leaves New York at 5-2-2 after nine matches under Chris Armas, the same record as Marsch in his final nine in charge before departing for Leipzig. To add even more validity to the parallel, both nine featured four at home and five away, with Marsch’s schedule a tad stronger, based on the Supporters’ Shield standing of teams played.

Much has been made of the more relaxed nature of Armas and the slightly-decaffeinated high press that the Red Bulls have played with under him, but the change in coaching and slight tweak to the team’s emphasis has offered one tangible difference: New York is competing in tighter matches.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Vancouver Whitecaps
Chris Armas speaks with fourth official Sorin Stoica during the Red Bulls’ 2-2 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps on August 18.
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

In the final nine games under Marsch, the average margin of each contest was 1.33 goals, while under Armas, that number was 0.89, with again, the same record of 5-2-2 in both scenarios. In those five wins, the average margin of victory for Marsch was 2.0 goals, while the average margin for Armas was 1.2.

An argument can be made that the Red Bulls have yet to come out of first gear under their new head coach, with the team yet to put together an overpowering, 90-minute win under the former assistant of Marsch.

But, perhaps these past nine games can serve as a promising sign moving forward, if the team can use the period as a way to become more accustom to playing in pressure-filled, one-goal matches, the likes of which will surely be replicated in the most meaningful encounters in November.

Wednesday’s match was one that called for postseason composure, for the increased emphasis on steady possession that has colored the perception of Armas’ tactical tweaks. But, the Red Bulls did not look capable of passing open City FC, regardless of whether the opposition had one or two less players to defend with.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC
New York City FC debutant Eloi Amagat (far left) reacts innocently to his red card-inducing challenge on Marc Rzatkowski in the 40th minute.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“I think one of the big things [to improve on] is, having a calmness about our approach in the second half,” Sean Davis said after the match. “And, knowing that, if we’re up a man, we can control the game with the ball.”

“We’re not always used to having our fair share of possession, we create chances through chaos and pressing” Davis later added. “But again, it’s something that we have to take from this game and improve on going forward.”

Last summer, the Red Bulls were winning many matches in, ultimately, comfortable fashion. Marsch’s team prevailed 5-1 over San Jose, bested Minnesota United 3-0, and blitzed Montreal to the tune of 4-0, all within a three-week span. This summer, under Armas, the Red Bulls most lopsided victory was a two-goal win over the New England Revolution, in which the winning goal from Daniel Royer did not arrive until the 69th minute.

But, despite a difference in method, Armas has so far proven he can deliver the same results as his predecessor. The question now becomes, is Armas simply managing to hold together Marsch’s promising title push, or is the longtime assistant providing what was missing from Marsch’s championship formula?