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Red Bulls, short on intangibles, condemned to same fate again

Trapped in a seemingly inescapable cycle, the 2019 New York Red Bulls are lost.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Seattle Sounders FC
Alex Muyl, Josh Sims and Chris Armas trudge off CenturyLink Field following the 4-2 loss to Seattle.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday night at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, for the third time this season, the New York Red Bulls lost a road match 4-2, folding in meek fashion after a pair of goals that offered rations of resolve.

That’s what this 2019 campaign has been: rations of former glory. After a Roaring Twenties-type of season in 2018, this year has been one long Depression, with an inspiring 90 minutes from the Red Bulls as hard to come by as spending money in the 1930s.

“It was good at times,” Aaron Long, who jumpstarted the Red Bulls with his goal, said of the performance. “I think we had a very slow start, and going 2-nil down to a good team in their building is never easy. But to claw back into it and to give up an unfortunate third goal, and then we had to push the game – but, there were good moments.”

The Red Bulls had only taken seven points from the seven matches entering Sunday, and four of those were at home. They put themselves in a position where a pair of challenging matches in the Pacific Northwest – that could normally be excused – could not be thrown away. They have themselves to blame for the circumstance, which is why it must be said, “good moments” in such a situation is not good enough. The time for moral victories is long gone.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Seattle Sounders FC
Sean Davis lies down face-first after his clearance attempt inadvertently gave Seattle a 3-2 lead in the 83rd minute.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The absence of a response in a time of great urgency is why fans reached a tipping point last month and twice chanted for the firing of the head coach, at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 24 and more audibly at Red Bull Arena on Aug. 31. As Chris Armas noted after the 2-0 loss to Colorado, fans will turn on the coach before the players.

“Listen, they’re not happy, they shouldn’t be,” Armas said. “So, who do you take it out on? “They don’t take it out on each other. I mean, they love the players. So, they blame the person in charge. It’s fair, it’s fair.”

Despite an excavation of data to unearth a stylistic change between last season and this, the underlying numbers parallel each other. The notion that this team has been reinvented and abandoned its pressing roots is not supported by the metrics. The Red Bulls are still a top three team in MLS in interceptions and tackles, and furthermore still first in aerial duels won and last in passing accuracy, despite the notion Armas overhauled press for possession.

This isn’t to ignore the impact of Armas’ increased emphasis on possession, but there has been no measurable divergence in how the Red Bulls operate. The effect of his tactical tweaking, much like the recurring theme of soul-crushing early goals or weak resolve late in matches, is an intangible conundrum.

When Luis Robles took accountability after the Red Bulls’ fourth home defeat of the season on July 25, his honest, self-critical words were a breath of fresh air.

“We’re not playing with the same intensity, we’re not playing with the same commitment, we’re not playing with the same intelligence as we did last year,” he said. “And maybe we’re not playing with the same sort of chip on our shoulder, that we have to prove something…maybe we’ve become too complacent.”

But, that same sentiment was stale when the Red Bulls dropped an even worse result at home on Aug. 31. The expiration date for soul searching has passed. With four regular season matches remaining, the Red Bulls either have it in them to turn their season around or they don’t. And, if they can’t, there will be more individuals forced to pay than the head coach.