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Patryk Klimala is not the problem with the New York Red Bulls

In fact the team would almost certainly be worse off without the Polish striker

Minnesota United FC v New York Red Bulls
Patryk Klimala has become a lightning rod for Red Bulls fans despite one of the team’s few players capable of generating offense.
Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

You’ll have to take my word for it since the video was deleted from YouTube at some point recently, but in 1978 the legendary English manager Brian Clough had an abrupt about-face that New York Red Bulls fans might find interesting.

Giving a one-on-one interview with a television journalist following his Nottingham Forest team’s 4-3 aggregate victory over FC Koln in the European Cup they would eventually win, Clough was not a smiling mess about his team’s imminent success as one would expect. Instead the Yorkshireman bellowed in his faux-patrician drawl how viscerally upset he was about his expensive striker missing a chance. Raising his voice while nervously running his hands through his hair after a tight victory was secured, Clough railed that Trevor Francis, the first British footballer to generate a £1 million transfer fee, missed on what he thought was a clear goalscoring opportunity and that a player earning as much as him should be scoring more. It was this sort of never-satisfied impetuousness that powered Clough’s charismatic grip on his players as well as the press.

But when the television reporter asks him to view the scoring chance in question on a then-novel replay device, Clough offered up one of the moments of open self-reflection that were less-heralded parts of his profound legacy. One speechless view of the replay causes him to drop the glib facade he used to ridicule Francis moments earlier. Clough comes almost to tears as he quietly admits that the chance was not nearly as easy as it seemed to him while in the nervous frenzy of the match.

Many New York Red Bulls fans have certainly entered the first phase of Clough’s emotional sweep in their opinion of Patryk Klimala. The Polish youth international is not quite the landmark signing that Trevor Francis was for Forest, but he remains New York’s most significant transfer in its current era. Klimala is approaching the end of his first calendar year with the Red Bulls, and opinions are mixed.

The 23-year-old has scored 9 goals in 36 MLS appearances thus far, a return that is beginning to make New York supporters antsy. The simmering frustration in areas of the fanbase rose to its highest boil after last year’s playoff elimination against Philadelphia where Klimala’s substitute appearance saw him miss two separate breakaway chances. That night in Chester ended by a Jakob Glesnes wonderstrike has lingered in the minds of New York fans who have increasingly latched onto a premise that Klimala is a waste of both clear chances and a huge chunk of the team’s budget.

Indeed strikers are paid to score goals, and a team needs more than a 1-in-3 strike rate from its lead center forward. But at the same time, adhering to such a reductive goal tally-based take ignores the eye test of Klimala’s ample talent as well as the context of New York’s offensive play of recent yore.

Klimala’s 9 goals over the last year are still good enough to lead the team’s scoring chart over that period, one in which none of the New York’s attackers have set the world alight and in which Gerhard Struber has leaned on elite defensive play to keep anchored in the top half of the table. Klimala has also registered 9 assists in the Red Bull shirt, a far-from-insignificant total given the aforementioned attacking struggles. These are not simple layoffs either, with an incisive dribble and hammered cross to the back post that created the team’s playoff-clinching goal against Montreal last year coming to mind.

Indeed, as I speculated during last weekend’s scoreless draw against Dallas, it is perhaps Klimala’s propensity to use his pace and technique to drift wide and bring his teammates into play that often leaves him outside of scoring positions or snatching at half chances. It is likely this is at least partially a directive from Gerhard Struber, whose inside-out attacking system fits Klimala more than those reducing his game to goal tallies realize.

Struber repeated on Friday his sense that the rest of the team’s attackers bear a burden to score, coming on the heels of his comments after the Dallas match that his tactics are not always easy for strikers to be prolific in. Unlike the playoff match against Philadelphia, Klimala is not being served up free runs on goal or back post sitters. In fact, many critics would be served by doing with their smartphones what Brian Clough did with the clunky replay device in Cologne and reviewing the tape of Klimala’s outing against Hartford in the Open Cup on Wednesday night.

Now that the team survived and the turbulent emotions of hoping the team advances have settled, give it a look. While it was yet another fruitless performance for a player beginning to show some signs of anxiety, it was also an exhibition of not only the poor quality of chances Klimala is receiving as well as the quality he has to create chances that would have never existed otherwise.

In the second minute he loops a John Tolkin cross onto goal from far out while sandwiched between two Hartford defenders.

Luquinhas plays the ball behind him in the 29th minute, but Klimala is still able to wrap foot around it to force a save from Jimmy Slayton.

In the final minute of the first half a flicked ball off a Lewis Morgan set piece delivery meets his head on edge of line — a fine example of Klimala’s ability to get into space that packed defenses have refused to give the Red Bulls this year — but Slayton is right there too.

None of the above freeze frames depict easy chances left untaken. Just before his replacement by Zach Ryan (which Struber said postgame was for rotational purposes) in the 64th minute, Klimala generated a shot typical of an athletic, technically-sound striker facing a packed defense a class beneath him — rounding the center backs on the side of the penalty area with speed and getting a shot on target, though at too tight of an angle to avoid Slayton. An evaluation of his chance conversion doesn’t even cover what Klimala’s speed and fierce attitude contributes to New York’s pressing game — he lies in the 92nd percentile of successful defensive pressures league-wide.

There’s no finer sight in soccer than an attacking player who can change games on his own, and it’s understandable that lovers of the game and particularly the Red Bulls think first of the legendary modern forwards such as Thierry Henry who could dribble through teams on their own and change games at the drop of a shoulder. But many more of the most successful strikers are ones who serve as the reliable keystone of a well-constructed attack. If the Red Bulls eventually start scoring three goals a game while Klimala slips into Altidore-at-Sunderland numbers, then there might be cause for concern.

But in the meantime, Klimala is not the problem with the New York Red Bulls attack and indeed is one of the rare individuals who can generate offense on his own without the team clicking as a unit. If he begins adding goals to his game once Struber finds a favored arrangement for new signings and injury returnees, it will come as a bonus for a team he already produces for more subtly.