New York Red Bulls v. Toronto FC: 3 Things I Noticed

New York Red Bulls v. Toronto FC: 3 Things I Noticed

The New York Red Bulls season started on a sunny but cold Sunday afternoon against the leagues reining MVP and Toronto FC. If not for the single addition of Gideon Baah in the starting eleven, you might not even notice this was the 2016 version of the Red Bulls. Jesse Marsch’s team was entering the season with only slight changes from the Supporter’s Sheild winning team and expectations were maybe as high as they had ever been. Expectations that might need some tempering, I would argue. Although, who could blame fans for dreaming big after the glory of a lost season turned trophy-winning campaign? Throughout the preseason, the promise of a new look, same core team were intriguing. But fans would have to wait another week to see it in action as Gonzalo Veron was sidelined with an hamstring injury. As the anticipation grew towards kick-off, I still didn’t know what we would see from Marsch’s men.

Toronto FC also entered the match full of expectation. After all, they spent the off-season strengthening their squad with MLS veterans to help clean up their leaky goal situation from 2015. Will Johnson in midfield, Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour were brought in to bring the mid-table Toronto squad closer to the top of the table. Although, TFC would be without DP forward Jozy Altidore for the opener, also out with a hamstring injury, they would still have a powerful front six with the likes of Michael Bradley, Giovinco, Jonathan Osorio. Clint Irwin, previously of the Colorado Rapids, took over the goalkeeping duties from the very capable Joe Bendik who was traded to Orlando in the offseason. TFC finished preseason 3-3-3 with the finale a 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union.

While the ultimate fates of either team won’t really be known for months, both clubs wanted to get off to a fast start to carry momentum from 2015 successes. The Red Bulls fell short of the mark on Sunday afternoon, but the game was not without its positives. While I’m the perennial doom and gloom fan, I’ve turned it around this year, and I will attempt to see the best in this team. It is of course important to mention that it is still so early in the year, and teams that went on to win MLS Cup are a combined 2-2-1. So everyone, take a deep breath, and let your mind erase the last 10 minutes of the game. Here’s what I noticed:

Gideon Baah is the real deal

Make no mistake, losing Matt Miazga was a big blow for this team. Miazga is projected to be a US national team starter and was a top 10 defender in the league last year. When he turned down several high priced contract extensions this winter, the writing was on the wall. Rather than lament the loss, the Red Bulls went out and found a replacement that fit seamlessly into the starting XI. Baah was the brightest spot on the field for the Red Bulls in Sunday’s loss, even if he may have had a slight hand in the play that led to Tsobasa Endoh being hauled to the ground, and Toronto’s go ahead goal.

Not since Tim Ream patrolled the backline have the Red Bulls had a defender who looked so comfortable and confident on the ball. His ability to wiggle out of trouble was a lot of fun to watch. I especially enjoyed watching him squirm away from Giovinco and Will Johnson in the 69th minute. It was a joy to watch. Baah misplayed a ball right off of Giovinco who had a step on him. Baah regained composure to get the ball out of trouble before nearly dribbling directly into Will Johnson. Rather than succomb to the pressure, Baah maintained control and was able to play the ball out of trouble.

Baah deserves plaudits for more than just his ability on the ball. His strength and smarts made him the standout on the backline for the afternoon. Several times, dangerous runs from Giovinco were snuffed out thanks to deft touches or smart runs by the newcomer. If Baah can keep this up, or dare I say improve, Red Bull fans will be quick to forget about young Matt Miazga.

Possession

I know this is unpopular, because possession without a result doesn’t mean anything. Hang with me though for a moment. The midfield trio of Will Johnson, Michael Bradley, and Jonathan Osorio were completely negated for much of the game thanks to smart possession work by the Red Bulls. While they were unable to generate a goal, they were able to create scoring opportunities throughout. Lloyd Sam, Bradley Wright Phillips, Felipe, and Kemar Lawrence all had very good opportunities to put one in the net. So while the possession may have felt aimless, it certainly yielded some chances. Remember, it is still basically preseason, the team is still getting up to speed. MLS play in march is like that friend we all have that goes to the bar everyday, sloppy.

When should you worry? When no chances are created, then it is time to reexamine the approach. Toronto outshot the Red Bulls 10 – 9. The big discrepancy was shots on and off target, where Toronto outshot the Red Bulls 5 – 1, and one of those shots was a penalty kick. The Red Bulls had no shots after the penalty was scored by the way. Not the best reaction from the team, especially having added more attacking power with Shaun Wright-Phillips, and Anatole Abang. It is clear that the penalty deflated the team. So again, while the result was poor, and the team reaction after the penalty was disappointing, the system was not a total failure on the day. Also remember, that the addition of Gonzalo Veron will greatly change the appearance of the attack.

Formation

While it may have been abandoned early in the first half, we did get a look at the Red Bulls new 4-2-2-2. I still have lots of questions about the execution, but I did like what I saw in theory. The formation was very fluid for the front four. Kljestan not only pinched in at times, but seemed to work both sides of the field. Early on, I remarked on Twitter that the left sided midfielder received a pass on the right side of the six. There are only two takeaways from this. Either this drifting freely was tactical or it was game influenced. In any case, there are some very good offensive positives to this type of movement, but some glaring deficiencies defensively.

Offensively, drifting and overlapping will cause confusion for any backline. Attackers get lost and this is a great way to open up lanes. Finding space becomes less of a concern as the defenders must account for several players coming in and out of their zones. The best example of this may have been late in the game, when Sal Zizzo brought the ball up on the right wing and played a ball into Kljestan at the top of the box. Because Kljestan had pushed so high, it gave Bradley Wright-Phillips the space to drift out to the left. Kljestan passed back to Dax McCarty first time and Wright-Phillips made a well-timed run that saw him receive the ball nearly all alone in the box. It was a golden opportunity. An opportunity wasted. This event was not an outlier, the majority of the Red Bulls best chances developed in this manor. Lloyd Sam, and Felipe had similar forays into the box to no avail. Again, that the chances were there is a good sign. The rest will come in time.

Some random thoughts and observations

  • Daniel Lovitz tactical foul on Sacha Kljestan in the 64th Red Bulls get the call, but not the card. It would have been Lovitz’s second card, and thus an ejection. Not sure why that isn’t given.
  • Louis Robles led all starters in passing percentage with 86.4%
  • Some fans had criticized Kljestan after the game for his lack of production. He led field players for the Red Bulls in chances created.

Photo cutesy of Bill Twomey Photography.