After a spirited and tactically-coherent 1-0 victory over Atlanta gave New York Red Bulls an optimistic start to the MLS is Back Tournament, a limp 2-0 loss to Columbus Crew on Thursday night zapped much of the momentum.
Chris Armas rolled out the same lineup that faced Atlanta and the opening ten minutes saw Red Bulls continue their confident play from Saturday with incisive possession in the Crew half. However Columbus took near-complete control for most of the match, cementing their grip on the game when Gyasi Zardes took advantage of a disorganized RBNY backline (with Aaron Long in particular dragged out of position) to slip past David Jensen to take a 1-0 lead. A rotated Columbus lineup saw experienced MLS talent like Josh Williams, Pedro Santos, and Chris Cadden coming in on fresh legs and the rhythm of the game frequently appeared as if Red Bulls were a man down. RBNY’s new 4-2-2-2 (or 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 depending on your point of view) left massive spaces for Columbus wingers to collect diagonal balls and pin New York back and Red Bull legs were noticeably dragging by the halftime whistle.
Armas seemed to acknowledge the intensity and stamina gap by making two substitutions at the half with Marc Rzatkowski entering for Cristian Cásseres and Brian White making his return replacing a nearly invisible Tom Barlow. However any hope of using their full fuel tanks to change the game’s momentum was thwarted when Columbus struck almost immediately after half. Like the first goal, the build up began with a throw-in catching the defense flat-footed, with former Red Bull Derrick Etienne laying the ball into open space for an onrushing Lucas Zelarayán who smashed a first time finish into the corner.
From that point the game switched to a format of Columbus defending against a Red Bull team that never truly threatened. The addition of Omir Fernandez, Alex Muyl and Jared Stroud added more energetic running to the Red Bull attack but the most enticing chance of the remainder of the game came for Columbus when new signing Youness Mokhtar hit the crossbar after a nifty chip of David Jensen. Against the time-killing low block of Columbus, the substitutes eager running was nonetheless mostly in vain without the vision and delivery skills of Kaku and Florian Valot. By the end of the over 100 minutes of play, Red Bulls did not register a shot on target.
Despite the challenging loss, RBNY still controls their fate in the tournament following an equally poor performance by Atlanta in falling to Cincinnati earlier Thursday. Cincinnati will face Red Bulls for the second time this year on Wednesday with RBNY hoping the longer rest period and lessons learned from their sluggish second game will help them impose their game on a still-gelling Cincinnati side who they defeated in March.