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A Couple Or Three Things: attacking struggles return to the fore in Cincinnati draw

The best and worst sides of the Red Bull tactical identity were on display in Ohio on Saturday

MLS: New York Red Bulls at FC Cincinnati
Frankie Amaya hurdles over Cincinnati forward Brenner in what was a sloppy game from both teams on Saturday.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls are still technically on top of the Eastern Conference after a 1-1 draw against FC Cincinnati. But Saturday’s result was another precarious one that exposed some of the flaws and wrinkles still apparent in this New York side. OaM editor Ben Cork tells ya couple or three things we learned as the Red Bulls continue to have slight stutters in their approach to the top.

Struggling to create chances again, let alone finish them

On Saturday, against one of the league’s worst defenses playing with ten men for much of the second half, the Red Bulls created very little danger. Gerhard Struber said a draw on the road was a result the team could live with, but he was correct in also acknowledging the stakes will be getting higher in the months to come —and defenses will be playing tighter, too.

The Red Bulls have risen towards the top of the Eastern Conference over the last month on a wave of individual golazos. Lewis Morgan lasers from outside the box. Luquinhas rebounds and chips that wrong-foot unsuspecting keepers. Serge Ngoma’s impetuous game-winning strip-and-finish against Atlanta. The team’s set piece play has also earned plaudits, particularly after an Aaron Long header last Sunday was the only goal in a win over Kansas City.

But when was the last time the Red Bulls actually scored through a well-worked chance? It’s been a while.

Omir Fernandez’s finish off a Cameron Harper cross to put the icing on a 3-0 cup derby win last month is the only time since May that the Red Bulls have scored through a deliberate attacking combination from the run of play — and even that goal was more the product of punishing a tired and overstretched City team hunting for goals. Much fan outrage has been registered at lead strikers Patryk Klimala and Tom Barlow, but again on Saturday it remains unclear what chances they’re supposed to be forcing into the net.

The flow chart for Saturday’s draw in Cincinnati paints a picture of a team creating a steady supply of low-intensity attacks but basically zero true openings outside of Lewis Morgan’s successfully-converted penalty. Even Gerhard Struber admitted last night that Lewis Morgan’s cross that Tom Barlow headed over the goal while attempting to stay in stride was the only clear live-ball chance his team created on the night.

Struber would elaborate on the team’s offensive struggles Saturday in a not-exactly-reassuring manner. His diagnosis of the team’s attacking struggles appeared to show far too mechanical of an approach to scoring, one that his players are supposedly still not picking up on almost two years into Struber’s New York tenure.

“In the end the overload situation for us, but we were in some moments not always ready to use the space what they gave us. Our decision-making in the last third with forward runs with different moves was not synchronized and was not in a direction that we create a lot of chances.”

“In some moments I think we don’t have the discipline where every player stays in a position to help us break the last line. I think sometimes we pick up the ball in the right areas but very flat. We find not the staggering and position that we can come in a possession with more power.”

“We are not always in moments with different moves, the understanding of when it’s the right moment to break the line, when it’s right moment to run forward, I think in the overload moments this was not on a good level. We must realize when we have an overload, we must have a high discipline in possession and not that we think every single player can do what they want and we forget the match plan.”

It increasingly appears that the Red Bulls can only reasonably expect to score once a Rube Goldberg device of second balls and mistakes by opponents falls at the correct angle in zone 14-C while runs that are precisely synchronized with such random occurrences are met with correct numbers in the box. The Aristocrats!

Struber’s comments about wishing players not to make their own decisions and runs outside of synchronization defy the fact that Luquinhas has salvaged the team’s offense in recent months by providing an unpredictable x-factor as described by Struber. And even more so, Struber’s frequent changing of formation from game-to-game and half-to-half — almost always with the rationale of adapting to the opponent to find better pressing distances as opposed to sparking the attack — is almost certain to corrode the shared sense of movement he expects his players to have.

The rediscovery of the club’s pressing-focused identity has fueled its return to the top of MLS, but hopes that Struber’s approach would provide more tactical dimension to the team’s performances than previous versions of energy drink soccer in New York are yet to be confirmed — and a fear that dedication to pressing orthodoxy is stifling the team’s growth is beginning to set in.

But the pressing spirit is still on point, and other teams are furious about it

The good side of the team’s tenacious tactical approach was on display in yet another away result where the Red Bulls grinded and kept their heads in a physical game.

Cincinnati’s more direct, press-happy approach instilled by first-year head coach Pat Noonan caused something of a mirror of systems to manifest much like in the Red Bulls’ often-dicey win over Atlanta two weeks ago. But at moments, the high tempo of the match appeared to suit Struber’s team and encouraged better midfield combination than seen in weeks, even if the aforementioned play in the final third was off yet again.

And sure enough, Cincinnati was baited into the type of second half meltdown that should be familiar to New York fans. Allan Cruz ensured that Cincinnati’s rough treatment of Luquinhas backfired when he earned a second yellow, while Luciano Acosta earned his second career red card against New York late when he headbutted Aaron Long.

Does Dru Yearwood have time for another revival?

Saturday marked the third match in a row where Red Bulls midfielder Dru Yearwood — initially signed as a Young Designated Player two years ago — dressed but did not make it off the bench. After being ever-present in the team’s blazing start to the season, the Englishman’s minutes have increasingly dwindled to the point of non-existence in recent weeks as Cristian Casseres has locked down the spot next to possible player of the year Frankie Amaya.

Roughly one year ago, Yearwood was in a similar situation as Gerhard Struber demoted him to the reserves for a period of time in what was described as a move to get him closer to the Austrian’s fitness standards. Yearwood appeared to bounce back well from the challenge, being in the engine room for much of the team’s late season rush into the playoff spots. But it’s unclear whether there will be a feel-good end to such a story the second time.

Though Yearwood’s cultured passing would seem to make him a candidate to shake up the team’s aforementioned struggle to create, it appears his struggles with pressing and tackling — Struber can often be seen groaning on the Red Bull Arena touchline at Yearwood’s defensive actions — have put him outside the picture for the second season in a row. Even worse for Yearwood, his competition for a place in central midfield will be increasing in the coming weeks. Uganda international Steven Sserwadda is now permanently with the first team, and Caden Clark and Daniel Edelman have returned from standout showings with the United States under-20 team.

As last year showed, there’s always hope. But it increasingly seems like Yearwood is not going to meet whatever standards are in place at the moment.