Many times, the outpouring of positivity or negativity after a result can feel dramatic and unwarranted, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday night at Red Bull Arena.
2019 has not been the masterpiece that 2018 was for the New York Red Bulls, but for all the baggage of injuries and national team absences, it seemed fair to award Chris Armas’ team the benefit of the doubt entering last weekend’s meeting with Columbus Crew SC.
New York was in fifth place, within touching distance of the top-seeded Philadelphia Union in a weaker Eastern Conference. With their full complement of players, the Red Bulls fought back to beat rivals New York City FC, fell victim to their own mistakes but out-created Toronto FC and held on for a statement road win at Orlando City – at least, that was one way to look at it.
After falling face-first into a trap game everyone saw coming at home to Crew SC, though, the six points against City FC and Orlando look all the more fortuitous, while the defensive breakdowns against Toronto and Crew SC appear all the more epidemic.
On Saturday, for the sixth time in nine matches, the Red Bulls allowed three or more goals. Throughout the entire 2018 season, New York only allowed three or more goals in five matches. Upon hearing that stat, Red Bulls goalkeeper and captain Luis Robles dropped his head in disgust.
“Ugh, that’s depressing,” he murmured painfully under his breath as he shook his head.
Finding a consensus among teams in such moments of reckoning – as in any post-match situation, really – is an inexact science. Admittedly, what one player thinks does not reflect the whole team. That said, when it’s the captain, calling out his own leadership and the team’s mentality, the message is unmistakable.
“I think, just as a leader, I think about the things I could have done better leading up into this game, and I said before the game, ‘Hey, this is a trap game,’ but maybe that should have been said three days ago,” Robles admitted, his tone rising in intensity.
“Instead of looking at the standings and thinking, ‘Oh, maybe we can get to second place,’ or like, ‘What a great win in Orlando, it was a good chance for us to show that we can win ugly.’ No, like, we should have been framing the game for what it truly is. And it is a trap game.”
In a case of pick your poison, in addition to a surprisingly shoddy defensive record, the Red Bulls have now also lost more home games (4) than in any previous season since Red Bull Arena opened in 2010 – and there is still one-third of the campaign yet to be played.
The sky is not falling, but the walls are caving in on a club that has season after season found a way to finish above the red line and give itself a shot at MLS Cup; for nine straight years, a playoff game at Red Bull Arena. The vibe in the tunnel and locker room on Saturday night reflected that simmering sense of panic, that worrying absence of answers.
With every loss, the air of invincibility that once manifested inside RBA fades. Even in brief lean stretches throughout his approaching seven-year Red Bulls tenure, Robles has never had to question his team’s ability to defend home field. Now, even that is in doubt, and a crestfallen, defeated Robles made a bold statement in diagnosing that issue, putting the blame on the very mentality of the team.
“It has to be [a mentality problem], because it’s not a quality problem,” Robles said. “You look at the defenders that we have and the midfielders and the guys that we have on the field, it’s not, by any means, a quality problem.
“You sort of think of those sayings…hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. And, we have talent, we have quality, look at all the accolades that these guys have, that we have as a team, as individuals. So, then, it just comes down to effort, it comes down to mentality, and it wasn’t there.”
Up until now, the season may have been an exhausting seesaw, but this seems like a fork-in-the-road moment for New York. With the preferred lineup healthy and players back from their national teams, the Red Bulls have run out of excuses for their inconsistency, and need to find answers to avoid an unprecedented first year without playoff soccer in Harrison.