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A Couple Or Three Things: Montreal puts Red Bulls at rock bottom...in 3rd place

Another frustrating home result for the Red Bulls, but one with plenty of runway to recover from

CF Montreal v New York Red Bulls
Lewis Morgan had his most frustrating afternoon of 2022 against Montreal.
Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

While the team’s road form remains perfect in 2022, the New York Red Bulls are still in search of their first win in Harrison after a crushing 2-1 loss against CF Montreal. After a night of reflection, OaM tells ya a couple or three things we learned from the latest frustrating home result…

This team needs Frankie Amaya

Much of the pregame fanfare hovered around the absence of Frankie Amaya due to suspension after being sent off with a second yellow card in New England — and turns out the concern was justified. As we wrote a few weeks ago, Amaya has been the engine of the Red Bulls’ resurgence in 2022 and losing his skillset hurt the team in the loss to Montreal.

Gerhard Struber said post-match that his midfielders often settled for deep shots or “playing backwards” rather than “driving” with the ball. Such a diagnosis illustrates an Amaya-shaped hole in the team’s formation on Saturday, with his ability to carry the ball out of transitions and navigate a packed final third severely lacking.

His understudy Cristian Cásseres actually had a decent game within the framework of his own playing identity. The Venezuelan’s rugged tackling and range of passing suits a deeper midfield position better than the attacking roles he’s largely been used in since arriving in MLS. But his misreading of forward runs and inability to carry the ball fluidly took away the dynamics that have improved New York’s attack in 2022. Amaya’s return to the lineup next week against Dallas is almost certain, and Struber will hope his boost to the attack is as well.

Maybe Lewis Morgan actually is better as a wingback

Another midweek topic had been the ultimate positional fate of Lewis Morgan. The speedy Scotsman was expected to slot into New York’s attacking midfield after an anemic 2021, but has been used more often in a wingback role as Gerhard Struber has preferred a 3/5-man defensive line rather than a more conventional 4-man line in most games.

While Morgan himself said this week that it is “no secret” he prefers playing more directly in the attacking third, he also said that Gerhard Struber gives clear reasons for deploying him deeper, and after a Montreal game in which Morgan struggled in a more attacking role, those reasons might be visible.

Morgan’s game is athletic and technical, but somewhat direct and lacking in guile. Especially against a team like Montreal playing more compact on the road and not providing the transition moments the Red Bulls prey on, Morgan’s dribbling runs often end up in cul-de-sacs or conclude with telegraphed crosses into traffic. The wingback setup offers Morgan more distance to generate a head of steam with his running, providing danger in the final third that the team’s other wide defenders John Tolkin, Tom Edwards, and Dylan Nealis have struggled to generate.

Perhaps the 4-2-3-1 formation used by Struber was particularly neutering to Morgan’s talents. The Toronto game in which Morgan scored a hat trick playing at the left wing featured two strikers offering reference points and creating space in front of Morgan for the former Celtic man to run into for scoring looks. Perhaps if such a formation comes back as Ashley Fletcher gets fit enough to be paired with Patryk Klimala, Morgan might get another chance to prove himself in his preferred role.

The team is not in crisis

Saturday’s result feels like a rock bottom for this team as currently assembled — which is probably a good thing.

While the Red Bulls would certainly prefer to have a win at home by now, the team’s situation is more of a paradox than a purgatory at the moment. At the close of Saturday’s action the Red Bulls still registered at 3rd in the Eastern Conference with the division’s second-highest goal differential. The team still features a strong defensive structure whose worst performance of the year came on Saturday in the form of a rusty set piece lapse and a freak goalkeeper mistake.

The squad is also still yet to be fully-settled and gelled. As Gerhard Struber said postgame, the team is still working on restrictive fitness plans for new arrivals Luquinhas and Ashley Fletcher, and that the Brazilian in particular was close to being relied on for a full 90 minutes soon. With Caden Clark and Wiki Carmona close to returns from injury and Frankie Amaya due back from suspension, there will be more cards for Struber to play in games like Saturday’s in the weeks and months to come.

A soul-searching gut check of a result is much better to have at third place in April rather than the outside of the playoff picture in autumn as seen in 2021. The platform is there for a few small improvements to make a big impact in results for the Red Bulls, which couldn’t be said in other recent seasons.