Harrison, NJ (August 15th, 2015) – A colleague of mine started the day at Red Bull Arena by telling a story of how he helped a neighbor’s dog left out on a hot day earlier this week. In some strange twist of fate, this match was much like that. On the final Saturday night match of the season, the red hot New York Red Bulls faced the slightly middling Toronto FC on a day where temperatures were in the mid-90s. It was a hot, sticky New Jersey summer’s eve.
The match featured the return of two former Red Bulls prospects – Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Since those early days, Bradley has become one of the best midfielders in the league, and a staple on the US National Team, after finding success in Europe on AS Roma of the Serie A. Jozy Altidore’s path has been a little less smooth. After bouncing around the minnows of Europe, he burst into the Dutch league and exhilarated US soccer fans with his ability to score at will there. However, upon his move to Sunderland of the Premier League, his production dropped as well as his playing time. In addition to that, Toronto’s coaching staff features a familiar face. Assistant coach Robin Fraser returns to Harrison for the first time since leaving the club for a similar position under TFC’s coach Greg Vanney.
Physicality and Defensive Depth Drives Red Bulls to Stifle TFC
The Red Bulls came into this match with a depleted backline. Head coach Jesse Marsch made the decision to hold out Kemar Lawrence after the speedy wingback obtained a bit of a knock during last week’s match vs NYCFC. The club’s defense sustained another blow when MLS’ disciplinary committee leveled a 2 match suspension on centerback Damien Perrinelle for taking a visible swing at Jefferson Mena, as the two jockeyed for position on a corner kick. With the Red Bulls facing Bradley, Altidore, and the clear front runner for MLS’ MVP Sebastien Giovinco, the Red Bulls would start a backline that featured Brooklyn native Anthony Wallace, Karl Ouimette, Matt Miazga, and Connor Lade.
Even though there were some questions about how this Red Bulls back four would handle the skill of Giovinco and the pure brute physicality of Jozy Altidore, the first half featured Ouimette and Wallace playing Altidore very close and very hard. Altidore regularly had problems in his attacking third, never quite allowed to turn with his back to goal, and Giovinco was played similarly, and without the respect he may normally expect. That was enough to stifle a Toronto attack that had only 3 1st half shots. Giovinco definitely did not appreciate the physical growl the 1st half took on, regularly contesting non calls each time he went to ground. That still did not prevent both captains Dax McCarty and Bradley to be on yellow cards before the 30th minute. As Marsch tells it, that physicality was part of the plan. “We wanted it especially when Giovinco was away from the goal and we were hard on him. We didn’t want him to find a rhythm and we wanted to limit his touches. Jozy is tricky because he likes contact, so as much as you want to be physical with him, you have to also play a little game so he doesn’t know where the defenders are,” he told LWoS.
Marsch went on to talk about the impact of McCarty and Felipe in the midfield. “(They) did a really good job of always moving with the play. They picked up a lot of second balls so Michael Bradley couldn’t get going.”
“We showed a lot of video on Giovinco, we felt that he was a major percentage of the jobtonight. Luis made a great play in the box that was aggressive, confident and the right play. Our backs stood him up for the most part but he was still dangerous at times for the most part. We knew that his and Jozy, their work rate isn’t the best so we knew that we could find the game a little bit,” Marsch stated.
McCarty echoed that sentiment. “I don’t think Giovinco and Jozy [Altidore] had too many touches tonight, and that’s a credit to our forwards and our wide midfielders and our midfield to try and win the ball higher up the field and if we didn’t do that, our defenders were there to cover for us. There were a few shaky moments in the back, but that’s going to happen when you have great players you’re playing against,” he stated.
Toronto came out a bit better in the second half, doubling their chances at goal, but only managing 3 shots on target over the course of the match. Even Luis Robles, who set a franchise record for shut outs, passing Tony Meola, had to give credit to the Red Bulls backline. “I think at the beginning of the season, we would have went out and pressured the ball [on Toronto’s long range shot], but we were willing to let him have that and then close off the middle and that’s what we did. Our game plan today was to limit their space, and if they got space, don’t panic and we’ll figure it out.”
Matt Miazga and Connor Lade seemed to be the lucky men tasked with containing Giovinco, who was held to only one single shot on goal. In post game, Miazga talked about defending the shifty forward. “Yeah he’s obviously a great player, he’s very dangerous on the ball. I could tell when he was on the field, his little movements are very tricky, I had to be aware at all times and luckily he didn’t get many chances so I’m happy about that. Luis made some big saves, and overall I thought the team played well.”
It’s hard not to talk more about the defense, however, the Red Bulls netted three goals tonight. Bradley Wright-Philips was able to punish Toronto’s back line time and time again. And then, just as the Red Bulls’ wheels were slowing down (it was still close to 90 degrees in the 70th minute), Shaun Wright-Philips and Gonzalo Veron enter the match. Veron ended up scoring his first MLS goal just before the final whistle off a rebound from a BWP shot that he created with a speedy play up the wing and a slick pass to the Englishman. Brooklyn native Anthony Wallace also scored for the Red Bulls, his second career goal. Marsch spoke about Wallace’s recent contribution, “I think what has been the best thing for me about Anthony is that when he has been called on and when he has stepped on the field he has confidence and believes in himself. I think he has established himself with his teammates so his teammates believe in him. It is not always easy when you play a backup role at times to keep yourself mentally and physically sharp so it is a big credit to him.”
Marsch went on to talk about Veron scoring his first goal. “Obviously it was good for him to get a goal and feel like he is contributing and get himself going. I thought his overall impact on the game was good he put defenders on their heels and you can see that some of his explosiveness will lead to him being dangerous and us creating chances.”
The Red Bulls have a significant stretch of time off now. They’re off until August 26th when they travel to Chicago to face the beleaguered Fire. Right now, New York is five points out of first in the east (and by extension, first overall in the league). Tonight’s win puts them in fourth overall, and only one of the teams on their remaining schedule its ahead of them in the standings, and that is DC United. Appropriately, South Ward could be heard singing about how much they hate DC, who they face at Red Bull Arena just four days after Chicago.
Featured Photo: Bill Twomey/Bill Twomey Photography