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A Couple Or Three Things: collapse in Columbus raises concerns ahead of playoffs

Tinkering at the front and back of the formation continues to haunt Gerhard Struber, but at least the midfield seems pretty resilient

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
Who was supposed to mark Derrick Etienne? Depends what minute of the match.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

With a 2-1 loss in Columbus last night, the New York Red Bulls have now lost 3 of their last 4 and are officially limping into this month’s playoffs. With the shock late collapse sinking in, OaM editor Ben Cork tells you a couple or three things about what led to it and what it says about the team as it inches closer to the fateful postseason.

Amaya and Edelman pairing shows promise in debut

Let’s start softly by looking at a positive element of last night’s game, one in which the Red Bulls did have the lead for a significant stretch. Frankie Amaya returned to the field for the first time since August, when he was put on the injury report after weeks of only occasionally getting off the bench despite being one of the team’s standout players in the season’s early months.

In the absence of the suspended Dru Yearwood and the mysteriously leg-ailed Cristian Cásseres, Amaya was finally allowed another grasp at a starting role, with successful results. In the 53rd minute the Californian returned a poorly-cleared ball with interest, smacking a 25-yard shot past Eloy Room.

But it was also a beneficial run-out for the potential playoff partnership with Daniel Edelman in the middle of the park. Though this was not one of New York’s better passing games this season as Columbus dominated possession, one will hope the duo can build a rapport in the event that Cásseres’ leg issue and Yearwood’s fitness don’t recover in time for postseason action. The pair make an enticing duo stylistically, with Edelman more of a deep-lying ball-sprayer while Amaya is more proficient at dribbles and carrying into the final third. But the inability of the team to protect the result in the second half could also speak to the risk inherent in the pair’s lack of muscle.

Defensive tinkering haunts Struber again

Last season’s struggles for lineup consistency could be explained by an extensive injury crisis that left the Red Bulls with only one fit center back at points of last summer. But by now it appears that playing with more of a full deck can make Gerhard Struber’s defensive selections even more erratic.

Nearing the close of a season where Struber has see-sawed between backlines featuring two center backs or three of them, Saturday’s game in Columbus saw the situation compounded by a slew of personnel changes both from the start and over the course of the match. Despite multiple other national team players playing full matches earlier Saturday, jet lag and time zone differences were cited behind a decision to rest captain and defensive anchor Aaron Long. Hassan Ndam, who began his season being released by Orange County SC, was inexplicably hoisted into the New York starting eleven for the first time in four years…only to be pulled at half time. The starting lineup additionally appeared to show Kyle Duncan losing his starting right back role to Dylan Nealis…until he was subbed on for Ndam as the younger Nealis was switched to center back.

If you’re a bit disoriented by reading all this, imagine being one of the players expected to handle it seamlessly in an intense late season match. Struber pinpointed individual mistakes as the basis for both goals, but it’s becoming increasingly unrealistic for him to expect a clean, mishap-free 90 minutes when he never allows a consistent defensive unit to gel even over the course of a game. Whether in yesterday’s more gentle collapse or in the mid-summer disasters against Orlando and Colorado, it’s unclear Struber either trusts his players to maintain the demanding defensive structure or is able to make personnel changes that don’t destabilize said structure.

If there’s one positive story on the defensive end, it’s Andres Reyes — who Struber has finally allowed a consistent run of starts after a stuttered return from injury in which he was repeatedly deemed too much of a risk to start but capable of the aforementioned 10-20 minute sub appearances. Reyes continues to be a dominant force in the air, but he was also one of the team’s rare sources of progressive passes against Columbus.

What is seemingly every striker doing wrong?

Gerhard Struber used three different strikers on Saturday night, which wouldn’t be noteworthy if not for there only being one striker spot in the New York formation. After Patryk Klimala returned from his injury lay-off but (unlike Frankie Amaya) was deemed incapable of going beyond the first half, Elias Manoel got in touch with his inner Jeff Fassero and played a stint of long relief. Elias, still goalless in five games, entered for Klimala at halftime but only lasted 33 minutes before Gerhard Struber put on Tom Barlow as a defensive closer in a gambit that…didn’t end up working.

It’s clear by now that Struber does not truly trust any of his strikers — not even the Premier League loanee brought in for the season’s first half. But what motivates Struber’s chopping and changing up top is only getting less clear as the season goes on. Klimala had been made into a punching bag for his low strike rate…until Elias proved even less productive. Each striker is in the elite league percentiles for pressing in the final third and successful pressures, so the advantage Struber gets from his trigger-happy use of Barlow could only be marginal — indeed, it empirically didn’t work last night. If aerial dominance is the key to unlocking Struber’s plan in the final third, his handling of 6’5” Watford loanee Ashley Fletcher did not show it.

With the Red Bulls continuing to struggle to create clear chances outside of set pieces, it seems Struber’s only concrete adjustment has been to play motivational musical chairs with his service-starved strikers. The Columbus match saw continued moments where the speedy Klimala and Elias would chase down long balls only to find themselves on islands as the remainder of the team showed little appetite for combination, and Struber’s emphasis on wingbacks and wide play continued to produce only a limited amount of hopeful crosses.

Is the raw speed and strength of Elias enough to spend a permanent fee to refine? Will a third season finally open the floodgates for Klimala’s high metrics and recent potential World Cup status? Does the pressing scheme only truly work if Tom Barlow is leading the line? The indecisive way Struber has managed his striker corps in 2022 makes all of these questions profoundly difficult as the offseason draws closer.