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A Couple Or Three Things: Red Bulls on their grindset with 1-0 win in KC

Team learns to win even when things don’t go their way

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Sporting Kansas City
Cameron Harper (lying down) and the Red Bulls did whatever it took to bear Sporting KC on Sunday night.
William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls are at the top of the Eastern Conference after gutting out a 1-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City despite having ten men following a Sean Nealis red card. OaM managing editor Ben Cork tells ya a couple or three things we learned about this team on Sunday night.

Team is learning to grind out wins

While it didn’t have the same euphoric feel as the comeback win over Atlanta just two days earlier, Sunday’s win over Sporting KC was yet another example of the Red Bulls securing an unlikely result with the tables turned against them. Despite a dodgy first half in which New York was outshot 9-3, a lengthy weather delay that chopped up tactical continuity, and a Sean Nealis red card for a handball that put the team down to 10 men for the game’s final stages, the Red Bulls earned three points in the Kansas summer heat.

In his post-match press comments, Gerhard Struber detailed his switch of formation 4-2-3-1 to the more typical 5-4-1 setup after his team’s struggles in the opening stages, but also admitted that the game ended up being one that wasn’t really decided by tactics. Struber said it was a game of “fighting” rather than finesse and went to the well-worn but always-true cliche that the best teams find ways to win ugly games where the circumstances are against them. As I wrote after Thursday’s win over Atlanta, the Red Bulls are entering the fearsome mode a team gets in when they relish the most difficult games.

Set pieces in shape

The decisive goal in Sunday’s win came from captain Aaron Long, who scored his second goal of the season after a March tally against Toronto. But it was the construction of the play that caught the eye. John Tolkin played a corner kick short to Lewis Morgan, whose short dribble drew the attention of the Kansas City shirts before he looped a cross to the far post for a free Long to nod in.

Not only have the Red Bulls cleaned up their defensive phases in set pieces after lapses cost them points earlier in the year, they’re increasingly dangerous when taking dead balls themselves. In the post-match press conference both Tolkin and Gerhard Struber name-dropped Troy Lesesne, the assistant coach who recently arrived in New York from the managerial role at New Mexico United, for the team’s dynamic look on set plays. Inventive tactics and coaching are turning former weaknesses into strengths as the Red Bulls become an increasingly complete side.

First place: the most dangerous table position in soccer

Gerhard Struber was quick to state that the Red Bulls could not afford to waste time table-watching this early in the season, but admitted that being first place in the Eastern Conference after Sunday’s result was “a hard fact” and a testament to his team’s strength. Struber and Tolkin expressed optimism post-match of building even further on the team’s success through the first half of 2022, but made clear the team is taking the season one game at a time.

Struber is often sensitive to the mental state of the teams he faces as well as their tactical approach, and he will be aware that New York’s first place status will be an extra bit of motivation for opponents hungry for a big scalp. More and more the Red Bulls are showing the ability to fight and win games through sheer will, but their ability to handle teams with the emotional edge on their side could become just as important as the season enters the home stretch.