Week 1: 3-2 home win over FC Cincinnati
On the eve of the season I laid out three criteria by which to evaluate the team in 2020, and the season opening win over Cincinnati gave me plenty of fodder for measuring the state of those three points as 2020 kicks off.
The team’s new 4-2-2-2 shape generally moved together and in sync, which led to FCC’s hapless backline getting dragged out of position with frequency. In this sense, the game recalled last season’s home opener against San Jose, where in the second half RBNY was able to drag Almeyda’s man-marking scheme across the field to create simple streaking runs leading to goals. This also seems like an improvement over last year’s often static style of play, where often only the front three would move in reaction to the ball. But while players seemed energetic and generally sharp, they were worryingly sloppy in some execution and at the back against an unremarkable opponent, especially following Cincinnati’s halftime adjustments.
The team was nonetheless fluid in combination, with the press more often moving entirely in sync rather than just front three. Players were closer together than in the 4-2-3-1, leading to more intuitive quick passing choices. Lateral incisions were key to all three goals, but these runs may not be available against more organized sides that don’t leave trailing runners as open. While Daniel Royer’s second half goal ended up as one for future YouTube reels, there’s cause for skepticism that he’ll be allowed so many touches in the box by more tenacious defenses.
One encouraging performance came from Cristian Cásseres Jr., who seems to have more clarity in his role even though his exact position on the field remains amorphous. He works to be available for the ball and teammates increasingly know where to find him, and he seems more certain when passing the ball forward.
An additional early signal for the squad’s pecking order this season was substitute Marc Rzatkowski being deployed as a late pressing presence at the tip of the midfield, more like his 2018 role than his do-it-all assignment in 2019.
In the end, some optimistic ingredients but also cause for concern that many would be erased by a less doomed opponent. A depleted Cincinnati team with no manager at home is probably the best opener Armas and the squad could have asked for to roll out a new formation featuring some green and rusty personnel.
Early of course, but Royer seems to be a full-on center forward rather than a second striker. I’m back to feeling optimistic about the flexibility and depth of our attacking talent, which by extension should provide little excuse for the management this year. The substitution of Sims for Kaku was an interesting choice, and an interesting commentary on the idea from last year that he would be key to making the team work. Always would prefer to see Omir Fernandez’s direct off-the-ball running in these late minutes.
Armas signaled further commitment to a two striker set-up in the press conference, and seemed to be open to using a large variety of players there, including Mathias Jørgensen.
Aaron Long was out with a hamstring issue, and Ryan Meara’s injury conveniently cleared up any hard decisions on who to start between the posts, where David Jensen performed solidly.
“Standard bearer of the club” is an awkward fit for a week-to-week analysis, so instead we can consider this section a space for commentary on the tone and ambition emanating out of the club, and which direction it seems to be moving in the long term.
The general energy of the squad seemed high, as it well should on opening day. As it’s week one I don’t want to read too much into things like body language, so I’ll only briefly note that it seemed on the flatter end towards the match when players would give a cold shoulder to a teammate after missing a pass.
Chris Armas started off the press conference discussing how they approached the match as a must-win game — true enough and unremarkable in a vacuum, but one’s mind still wanders to the years previous where this felt more like an unsaid standard for everyone in the room already. Armas praised his own team for being hard to play against, citing a preseason performance punching up against an Atlanta team who were preparing for Champions League matches.
Armas may not be so wrong anymore when he points up to Atlanta as another tier of team, but it feels an awful lot like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and is slightly painful to have a rival framed in such a way only a year and change after we went toe-to-toe. But in general, the third year RBNY manager seemed a bit more comfortable and well-spoken in his official 2020 debut.
Red Bull Arena itself has undergone some changes. The starkest change is a new voice on the PA microphone, who seemed a bit unfamiliar with some of the names on the roster as well as the rhythms of a soccer match. But even assuming the jitters subside and he eventually gets comfortable, it’s a head-scratching move, as he appears to be working from the same general script as the previous PA program. The rationale for hiring a new one seems unclear.
The new stadium MC’s most controversial action was when he announced the winner of a new raffle promotion in the middle of play during the second half, which some speculated affected player concentration during the breakdown that led to Jurgen Locadia’s goal to bring Cincinnati within one. Combined with the return of an in-game stadium host from late last season, RBA has added a bit of minor league baseball flair.
The signage above concessions stands has changed to an array of different painted lettering directly on the concrete. While I don’t think it’s going to fool anyone into believing there’s vintage hot dog stands amidst the gravel lots of Harrison, it’s nonetheless an improvement over the previous generic signage you would see at every convention center in North America.
Finally, the club has added stretches of black vinyl across the bare concrete perimeters on the north end of the pitch and other facades in the stadium bowls. Presumably it is an attempt to complement the team’s new black kits, but unfortunately the result is only a more visually confused Red Bull Arena. After seeming to settle on a full embrace of red in 2018, the club is back in no man’s land in what colors it wants to show to the world.