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A Couple or Three Things: Orlando collapse finds Struber in the weeds

Open Cup disaster unfortunately echoes long-term flaws in Austrian manager’s approach

MLS: New York Red Bulls at FC Cincinnati
Gerhard Struber hit the low point of his New York tenure in Orlando last night.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It was a nightmare for the New York Red Bulls in central Florida on Wednesday night. After going into halftime at 1-1, the team completely collapsed in the second 45 and were dumped out of the US Open Cup by Orlando on a 5-1 scoreline. OaM editor Ben Cork lays out a couple or three things about how the collapse fits multiple concerning patterns in Gerhard Struber’s managerial tenure.

More set piece breakdowns

The Red Bulls have earned plaudits in recent weeks for their set piece play, and rightfully so. The team has been dangerous from inventive dead ball plays on the attacking side of the ball for the first time since the Jesse Marsch era, with Aaron Long’s winner in Kansas City earlier this month as the most recent exhibit.

But on the other end of the pitch, the Red Bulls continue to struggle with clearing the danger from opponents’ restarts. Both of Cesar Araujo’s game-changing goals for Orlando came off of the second ball from a set piece, raising the specter of an issue that has plagued the team all season. Last week’s win in Austin was almost coughed up beginning with Sebastian Driussi’s snatched finish off a weak clearance while multiple matches earlier in the season saw solid performances eliminated by breakdowns and inability to get reset after stopping the first delivery, most notably Luis Amarilla’s goal that secured an unlikely win in Harrison for Minnesota in March.

The mind wanders for the origin of these issues. The team is clearly well-drilled as showed by their attacking set piece prowess. The squad may be a little shorter than the mean, but the physical presence of Andres Reyes was left on the bench and the second ball finishes that have sunk the team over the course of the year typically go unchallenged on the ground before they’re launched into the air.

Too many subs too early

Last month Gerhard Struber remarked that he was a big fan of FIFA’s ruling that the pandemic-induced adjustment to allow five substitutions would remain permanent. He said that this policy not only allowed him to keep his entire squad happy with regular minutes but also to better rotate and keep his team fresh as they committed to his high-tempo tactics.

While the Austrian’s avid use of his bench has resulted in some comeback results this year, it’s also caused his team to lose cohesion and purpose in the second half of many matches — with last night’s second half disaster in Orlando as the most stark evidence yet that Struber is overindulging these often reactive personnel changes to a self-destructive degree. After a lively first half with some of the most sustained attacking the team has engaged in all season, Patryk Klimala and Omir Fernandez were removed in the first ten minutes of the second half in response to Mauricio Pereyra’s go-ahead goal. Goalscorer Lewis Morgan was removed minutes later in a move that Struber confirmed in a dour post-match press conference was as a type of punishment for what he claimed was poor defensive effort. As pointed out by some, these changes did not turn the game in New York’s favor — quite the opposite actually.

Struber’s emphasis on system and formational flexibility rather than personnel is a respectable one when wielded sensibly in key moments. But as I commented last week, it increasingly seems that Struber is too eager completely change the team’s shape and makeup over the course of seemingly every game — instead of letting his players play, he is making the entire tactical jetliner out of the black box of formation shifts.

Press or…die?

As hinted by the Morgan affair last night, Struber’s trigger-happy substitution policy has often looked like one used for individual discipline and punishment for insufficient adherence to his intricate pressing scheme. Despite a first half where the team attacked in waves, Struber’s sideline TV interview as the second half started hinted that he did not spend the locker room break building up his team’s confidence after conceding an unlucky goal to close a half they had the upper hand in. Despite a first 45 where the team created waves of chances with Patryk Klimala and Luquinhas coming close to making the game 2-0 or even 3-0, a brooding Struber said instead that he was unimpressed with the team’s work against the ball.

While a manager sticking to his tactical guns is admirable on a certain level, Struber is increasingly coming off as an inflexible ideologue. As mentioned above, Struber’s attempt to re-charge the press by pushing his EA Sports sliders all the way up through the entry of frontline battering ram Tom Barlow backfired dramatically in Orlando. Not only did the team’s shape collapse, leaving massive openings for Orlando to counter through, but the team never came close to regaining the offensive flow of the first 45. Struber’s yanking of Morgan follows the pattern of numerous high-quality players (such as Dru Yearwood, Patryk Klimala, Caden Clark, and Frankie Amaya) who have been seemingly banished from the first choice eleven for stretches of Struber’s tenure due to insufficient adherence to his precise pressing triggers.

These situations are perhaps more excusable early in a managerial tenure, but Struber has now been working with most of these players for almost two years and the needle seems to be moving downward. Despite the return of captain and American international Aaron Long, the team’s defensive record is somewhat off the pace of last year’s suffocating unit. After a stingy 2021 season where the team covered for its attacking woes by conceding only 0.97 goals per game, the Red Bulls have given up 1.13 per league match in 2022 despite Struber’s inflexible devotion to players who meet his work rate standards. It’s becoming more and more troubling that — as seen from the successful performance by a rotated experimental squad in Austin over the weekend — the Red Bulls appear to look better the less they adhere to Struber’s demanding taste.