While it wasn’t the three points the team needs in its playoff hunt, there were more positive vibes around Red Bull Arena than fans have become used to on a low-key Wednesday night.
Unable to continue its streaking derby form but making noticeable strides in possession and attack, the New York Red Bulls fought to a 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union in Harrison. Omir Fernandez scored a dramatic equalizer late in the first half to cancel out a soft Sergio Santos set piece goal in a competitive battle between familiar Eastern Conference foes.
Gerhard Struber’s lineup saw the continuation of the 3-6-1 “Christmas tree” formation that saw his team earn a 1-0 derby victory against NYCFC over the weekend. Omir Fernandez and Cristian Casseres operated behind lead striker Patryk Klimala as the Red Bulls found more facets to their much-maligned approach play. The first half saw the team hitting immediate and emphatic long passes towards Klimala, seeking to take advantage of the high Philadelphia backline.
More methodical passing in the final third almost immediately earned paydirt as Casseres collected a Fernandez entry pass in the 4th minute and twisted his way towards a shot saved by Andre Blake. The active Patryk Klimala pulled wide moments later as a Red Bulls team that has struggled to create scoring chances looked far more dangerous than typical of late.
But the early momentum was cancelled out in the 17th minute by a goal unfortunately characteristic of a 2021 New York concession. After a sequence in which Philadelphia pinned the Red Bulls back for consecutive corner kicks, a low ball towards the near post trickled its way through for Philadelphia striker Sergio Santos (who scored a painful equalizer against the Red Bulls in July) to scuff the ball over the line for a nonchalant Philadelphia lead.
But twenty minutes later, the Red Bulls would equalize through a familiar face. After scoring the winner in front of a hometown Bronx crowd on Saturday night’s derby, Omir Fernandez was the hero for New York on a second consecutive gamenight. After a failed Philadelphia clearance left the ball to be flicked up by Cristian Casseres, Fernandez found space and corked a half-volley past Andre Blake to tie the proceedings, and give the Red Bulls are noticeable burst of energy before the half.
The second half would see a skittish Philadelphia bunker deep into what Struber described as a low block that took away the space New York waa finding directly early on. The game would proceed back and forth for much of the half as a more confident Red Bulls team in possession were frequently required to chase down Union counter attacks. Wikelman Carmona was brought on by Struber as a number 10 midfielder to feed Fernandez and Klimala, but as the manager said post-match, the “desire” to work past the Philadelphia low block did not manifest. Despite this, the crowd was roaring in stoppage time as New York forced several corners and generally showed more threat than dejected fans have been used to recently.
Nonetheless, Struber expressed disappointment with the team’s inability to get three points against a Philadelphia team he said was “not at a good level” on the night.
“The result makes me and the whole team a little unhappy in the end. We have so much control and go in such a good direction, especially in the second half, with our pressing. Philadelphia is only dangerous on set pieces and we don’t use that.”
“I can feel this match was so close but we lack some of the determination and desire in the final third. This is what was missing for me today.”
Goalscorer Omir Fernandez repeated the disappointment with the final result, but remarked on the team’s growing confidence following a more spirited low scoring draw than the others seen in Harrison this year.
“I think we’re coming out of what was an unlucky midseason - I think you could see it in our confidence and that’s changed. The team is glowing a bit more in the locker room, there’s a bit more swagger.”
On an individual level, Fernandez remarked on the desire to bottle his personal good form and spread it to the rest of the team ahead of what is shaping up to be a competitive final month of the season.
“I’m on a high right now confidence-wise...and I want to inject that into my teammates.”
Fernandez and the Red Bulls still find themselves stuck in the purgatory of 11th place, though still with games in hand on conference rivals and multiple six-pointer matches against fellow bubble teams coming after this weekend’s easier tilt against recently manager-less Cincinnati.
“(Going to Cincinnati this weekend) we’re not going there to draw or lose, we’re going there to win.”
“We need to win.”