Three Things I Noticed: RBNY @ D.C. United

The Red Bulls came into RFK Stadium well rested, but they looked like might still be asleep for large stretches of the game against hated rival D.C. United for first place in the Eastern Conference. The stakes sound more enticing than they should at this early stage, but Red Bulls fans were looking for a repeat of their recent form. D.C. was coming off of two late wins that saw them launch up the standings. With some returning bodies and new found confidence, it did not feel like we would see a repeat performance of the Week 2 matinee in Harrison, NJ. The results for each side was a mixed bag. Flashes of brilliance or conflicting minds, the game was manic. Here’s what I noticed:

Three Things I Noticed: RBNY @ D.C. United

The schedule so far

Time off has come rather easily to the Red Bulls. The Red Bulls have played but 4 games in the first six weeks of the MLS season. With a new group of players still trying to gel, the jarring start to the season has not helped. The ideas were nearly there all day, such as the Mike Grella offside goal. Did Grella leave too early or did Kljestan release late? Either is correct. The chemistry is still in progress. What is good to see, offensively at least, is that they aren’t far off from achieving that. The ideas are there, and the results show great promise. This is the part about having patience this season. So far, the Red Bulls have exceeded expectations, but as Jesse Marsch is quick to point out, there is more work to be done.

The good news? The Red Bulls will play without another break until June. That is more than enough time to start figuring things out and to assess the team’s needs in the summer window. The most telling sign was the panic and confusion after the first goal. Up until that point, the Red Bulls had more or less controlled the game and created chances. After the goal, the team seemed flat. D.C. started picking apart the backline and midfield, clicking in a way the Red Bulls never really did on the night. After the second goal, the Red Bulls woke up, or maybe D.C. began to let the pressure off while holding the most dangerous lead in soccer. Looking at the distribution of Sacha Kljestan’s successful passes, you can tell exactly where the Red Bulls held control.

Midfield failure?

During the large stretch of the game that the Red Bulls struggled, the midfield trios number of successful passes shrunk. But the issue wasn’t misplayed passes as much as it was having trouble playing the ball out of the back. While Damien Perrinelle has been a fine defender, his passing has mostly been poor. In contrast, Matt Miazga had done very well in his first two starts of the year. In both cases, his passing was over 70%. Against D.C., the youngster could only manage 63%. The defense in general had a poor passing afternoon, as Miazga had the highest pass completion of the back four. If the defenders cannot pass out of the back, the team will be on its heels. This disruption can also be seen in the numbers.

The midfield trio had the highest average tackled and possession lost numbers of the season (16) compared to the week 3 win in Columbus (11) and the week 2 win against D.C. (15). Receiving the ball under pressure is one issue, but recovering and tackling was also down against D.C. Dax McCarty has averaged 4.3 tackles won a game, against D.C. this past weekend, he only managed 1. Felipe only managed to win 2. Why is this so significant? Think of the previous four goals the Red Bulls scored prior to Saturday’s draw. All of them were born out of forcing turnovers at different levels of the field. When teams can maintain possession and pass out of the high pressure, the Red Bulls will find it tough to regain control. They must adjust and sit a bit deeper to absorb some of the pressure and force teams into making exploratory passes to unlock the defense, and try to win possession at deeper levels of the field.

Sam’s the man

Another big part of the week 2 win against D.C., was focusing on the left side of the defense. Lloyd Sam had a season high with 42 attempted passes and 9 crosses into the box. By contrast, Sal Zizzo only managed 29 attempts in that same game. By contrast, the Red Bulls played a much more balanaced game with Grella in the lineup. Sam and Grella each saw the ball about the same amount (32, 31 respectively.). Sam has undoubtedly been the offensive MVP so far, so he needs to see the ball more. The problem is, teams will clue in on that. D.C. was certainly prepared for it as evidenced by Sam’s season low 59% passing accuracy.

In the early goings, the Red Bulls tended to attack down the left side. Sean Franklin left space behind him while trying to get into the attack, and the Red Bulls had all of their best attacks in the first 15 minutes down that side. Maybe that affected Sam by not getting enough touches early. His rhythm was also way off, maybe more so than any other field player. Sam had a season low in passing percentage (59%) as well. Grella probably earned some hate from the Red Bulls fans this week, but he was the better attacking player on the day. He kicked off the best passing sequence of the game for the Red Bulls which led to the missed handball on what would have been Felipe’s first goal for the team. One troubling thing that I saw on the play however, was the movement of Bradley Wright-Phillips. While he played an otherwise outstanding game, if you watch the sequence again, after he makes that beautiful first time pass for Kljestan, he does not start his run right away. Instead, he joins in the attack late and makes an identical run to Felipe. I want to see BWP opening up space for his teammates, not closing it down.

This Friday, the Red Bulls will take on San Jose in their second home game of the year. Will we see a more cohesive unit, or will the early season shine start to fade a bit on the only undefeated team in  the Eastern Conference? Time will tell.