While the New York Red Bulls added to their midfield and forward corps this week, it was a jumbled defensive line that was again the team’s undoing in a 3-2 away loss to Los Angeles Galaxy. Mexican superstar Javier Chicharito Hernandez notched a characteristically opportunistic hat trick as the two defensive formations used by Gerhard Struber both struggled to gel in the California sun.
After establishing a 4-4-2 diamond setup in late preseason and the opener against Kansas City, Struber began the match against LA with the Red Bulls in a somewhat counterintuitive 3-5-2 formation. Amro Tarek entered as a third center back while Sean Nealis retained his place, with offseason signing Andres Reyes still not viable for selection according to Struber. Florian Valot curiously slotted in as a right-sided wingback in the formation rather than the ostensibly healthy Kyle Duncan.
Struber’s formational gamble (which he stated after the match was motivated by a wish to use wingers to press and get around the Galaxy defense) backfired in the first half. Valot was caught in possession in the 9th minute while turning infield from his wide role, allowing a Galaxy break that finished with the famed poacher Chicharito stretching to slot in an errant cross at the back post and put Los Angeles ahead 1-0.
The Red Bulls were able to react well and find a rhythm after going down, and answered back on the scoresheet in the 26th minute. Left back Andrew Gutman, who gained plaudits for his energetic-if-erratic performance against Kansas City, carried the ball around the Galaxy defense and combined with Brian White before slotting past Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond to equalize.
But the three-man backline used in the first half by New York rarely looked comfortable rotating their coverage of the infamously elusive Chicharito. A looping Victor Vazquez ball in the 41st minute found the Mexican national team legend ghosting in on a helpless Carlos Coronel to put the Galaxy back ahead.
After halftime, Struber adjusted back to the diamond formation to apparent dividends. Dru Yearwood entered as the fourth midfielder while Kyle Duncan entered for Nealis to slot in as a more traditional right back. The Red Bulls established control of the run of play but were unraveled by yet another moment of opportunism by the Galaxy’s talisman. After miscommunication between Gutman and Fábio Gomes Netto in receiving a long ball left Gutman stranded upfield, the Galaxy overloaded the box with the resulting pinball ending with Chicharito burying the ball at the back post to double the Los Angeles advantage.
The Red Bulls managed to maintain control of the game’s flow as frequent interruptions from an exhausted pair of teams still in preseason fitness eventually led to a 10-minute stoppage time period. Prior to that the Red Bulls had dragged back to within a goal through a Cristian Cásseres set piece clean-up, but in the end were unable to get an equalizer. A fruitless penalty shout on a dribble by debutant Frankie Amaya was followed by an enticing wide attempt by Daniel Royer as the last threats by a New York team bitterly disappointed to be 0-2 to open a new era.
“We’re very, very disappointed,” said Gerhard Struber post-match. “We’ve won every race in the statistics and even after many changes, in the second half the game was absolutely in our hands. I think in the first half especially there are 2-3 moments where we are not ready.”
When asked about his formational shift in the first half, Struber emphasized the importance of “flexibility” and the ability to be able to change to different opponents. “I was hoping for (the wingbacks) to break the lines and hopefully have better distances for pressing. We trained a lot in this formation during the week, but then also we go back in the second half to the diamond which is a shape everyone can handle.”
Team captain Sean Davis seconded Struber’s disappointment at the team’s lack of focus for the full 90 minutes. “We were in control for probably 85 minutes but in this league that’s not enough. We’ve conceded three goals that were all preventable. There’s no point in running and pressing like we do if we’re going to concede soft goals.”
Andrew Gutman expressed excitement at getting on the scoresheet but also remarked on the need for the team to sharpen and get better in the whole of the game. “We know we’re a much better team than where we are in the table, and teams know that.”
As the team returns home for a May Day matchup with Chicago Fire looking to finally hit winning form, Struber emphasized the need for the team “to go straight with our principles” as the team continues to be assembled with new signings including Amaya and Patryk Klimala. “We have two games at home where we have to produce points. I cannot always leave just saying we had a good performance - we need points.”