Expected discourse reigns in the aftermath of the New York Red Bulls’ dismal 2-0 loss to FC Cincinnati and subsequent crash out of the MLS is Back Tournament and claims of “worst match in club history” abound. While defeat and a trip home was not the expected outcome, perhaps it should have been in light of struggles to deal with the tried and true bunker-and-counter. It’s a familiar foul stench for fans and media, but practiced noses source the odor from years of experience. For evidence of the tactic’s continued success against both high press and stubborn one-plan managers alike, return to 2014 in the long, long ago before time of the Mike Petke tenure.
The Red Bulls were taking on Salvadorian club C.D. FAS in a CONCACAF Champions League group play fixture with similar stakes. Petke’s side needed a win to avoid elimination. The performance was shocking. As expected, FAS bunkered with a patchwork lineup, and the Red Bulls played directly into it. The familiar strategy was to hit dozens of crosses to the targets of Saer Sene (who, despite his height, preferred to hang out on the wing) and Peguy Luyindula (a man that would never be anyone’s first choice to win a header). It was as fruitless as an orange grove in a mountainous terrain.
Further compounding the failure, in the 72nd minute, Petke made the decision to replace striker Sene with midfielder Ruben Bover, perhaps an acknowledgment that things weren’t working. In the face of all logic and reason, the tactics remained consistent and the crosses continued. Like an envelope left at the post office without anything written on it, they went undelivered. The accumulated fans looked up and shouted, “Stop crossing!” Petke looked down, and whispered, “No.”
Of course, there was one moment where the club abandoned its hard headed strategy, with Luyindula skillfully slaloming through the box and drawing a penalty. You may be familiar with the end result, which will be discussed shortly. But first, remember that against a completely bunkered opponent, what drew the most success and best scoring opportunity was keeping the ball on the ground and solo dribbling runs.
Does the loss and tournament deportation against FC Cincinnati stand up to that 2014 failure in Santa Ana, El Salvador? What separates those two matches is a visually striking moment of utter failure. Against FAS, it is the aforementioned Sene penalty attempt, a brief lantern of hope in a dark world that was immediately extinguished when the Parisian attacker launched his effort into the stratosphere. The moment is still referenced and mocked to this day.
The Red Bulls’ Battle of Orlandowana does not have a hindsight coup de grâce, the moment viewed as a sign of bad luck or be pointed to by historians recounting, “And that’s when I knew it was not their day.” Nothing in the match springs to mind. There were a few defensive lapses, but for all muted and neutered positives, there weren’t many outright negatives. The performance against Cincinnati is a void of mediocrity, highlighted by useless possession and aimless crosses.
A politically minded person might refer to the match as “The Cross to Nowhere.” However, there hasn’t been enough money spent on the squad to make it an apt comparison. As is custom, it’s a failure of tactics and an inability to adjust mid-game to a working strategy. If a team is bunkering and the manager has deployed a lineup with zero target strikers, then why continue death by 1,000 crosses? For accuracy’s sake, it was 51 crosses and the club completed five.
So #RBNY attempted 51 crosses and completed five (four were from short corners).— Jonathan Sigal (@JonathanSigal) July 23, 2020
I'm no tactical guru, but doesn't seem effective when Royer and Fernandez are both 5'9". Meanwhile, #FCCincy CBs Waston and Pettersson are both at least 6'3". #CINvRBNY https://t.co/b7WPw7BRTW pic.twitter.com/SGKHlNxUOz
Anecdotally, it appeared the Red Bulls experienced the most success when driving to the end line and keeping the ball on the ground. Those moments forced Cincinnati out of its defensive shape and allowed for inroads into the box. While fruitless, as evidenced by the final score, attacking on the ground appeared a more prudent strategy than the whipping in of frivolous crosses by a team playing without a suitable aerial threat until the 80th minute. For all his talents and abilities, Daniel Royer is neither a target striker nor a fox-in-the-box. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bradley Wright-Phillips he is not.
It’s been many years. Since 2010, the club has employed several coaches and utilized various tactics. Yet there has not been a single one capable of showing the maverick, strategy-shifting abilities to adjust mid-match and shift to a winning strategy. Chris Armas endured criticism for at times moving away from the high press into a more possession oriented attack, but there’s evidence of genuine intent and creativity. He is not a “one-plan” manager and should be applauded for ingenuity. Unfortunately, for all attempts to discover this mythical Plan B, it was perhaps uncorked at the wrong time. This match did not call for dominance in passing, but either sitting back to draw out Cincinnati or heroic solo dribbling runs to pull away defenders and open up space.
This Red Bulls loss wasn’t the worst performance in club history. It’s merely an ugly, fresh-in-the-mind failure demonstrating the club’s inability to combat the most simplistic of opponent tactics. Cincinnati formed a square and the Red Bulls drove directly straight at them, time and time again, instead of drawing them out or attempting solutions that exhibited slightly more success.
The MLS is Back Tournament is over for the New York Red Bulls. An attempt at silverware squandered after a seemingly hopeful and positive start. It’s done, with bittersweet solace it was not the worst or most ignominious performance in history. Losing to Cincinnati is a failure that likely won’t be discussed or remembered in three years, maybe even three months. Like most playoff and cup defeats it will pass into memory, only mentioned in long, rambling conversations and prattling blog posts after current and more interesting topics have been fully explored. The battle was lost, and the club will move onto the new challenges and continual opportunities for glory that sports provide. The war to show up in big moments and break down a bunkered opponent continues, but hopefully for not much longer.