Whether they realized it or not, this was the first pivotal moment of the New York Red Bulls young season. The stakes were nonexistent, yet they were as high as they could be in Harrison Saturday night. The notoriously fickle Red Bulls fans were growing restless., Last year’s success was firmly planted in the past, and “What have you done for me lately?”, was the rallying cry heard in the most vocal fan circles of perennial pessimists with their positions precariously hanging on to hope by the faintest of grips. This was a cup final.
New York Red Bulls Come From Behind To Defeat Houston
Their appetites would at least be whet by potential. Gonzalo Veron was available for the first time this year. The promise of a new formation rested entirely on the young Argentine’s shoulders. He was the key, and up until now, missing ingredient in the Red Bulls offseason overhaul in the search for plan B. I’ve mentioned it previously, but it is worth noting that the notion of plan B is already a misguided one. From all accounts, and the results so far, plan B would very much be bumped up in priority to eschew the now too predictable 4-2-3-1 that seemed to be plaguing the Red Bulls early results.
The faceless culprit that dictates the poor results comes from what Jesse Marsch referred to last year as “rest defense”. The idea was, that with the proper movement off the ball during times of possession, when the ball is surrendered, it is much easier to win it back. A so-called, safety net approach. Looking back to each goal the Red Bulls surrendered this year, as well as chances conceded, there is one clear issue. Players are getting caught out of position. The easiest to point the blame at has been Kemar Lawrence, but he is far from the only culprit as evidenced Saturday night.
The night started according to plan for the Red Bulls. Houston rarely looked dangerous through the opening 30 minutes, and New York not only found a goal, but looked like they might triple the score with chances not taken by Bradley Wright Phillips, Felipe, and Sacha Kljestan. Then a moment that must have seemed all too familiar for New York fans, lady luck turned. Gonzalo Veron, in his first start since suffering a hamstring injury in preseason, went down to the ground. It was clear that his night was done. For Red Bull fans, seeing the man who had reinvigorated their stagnant attack down, and possibly out for a longer spell, it was a deflating moment. For the rest of the half, the Red Bulls would suffer through one of the strangest 15 minutes I had ever seen.
“Well, I mean, that’s not how you would draw it up.” Said head coach Jesse Marsch in his post-game press conference. It was a thought felt by just about everyone watching the first half. The Red Bulls would surrender two players and goals to the Dynamo. On Houston’s second goal, the decibel level in the stadium dropped entirely. You could almost hear a pin drop. The old feeling of “Here we go again.” Seemed to permeate the entire arena. Not only did the Red Bulls commit two atrocious defensive mistakes punished for goals, but they were also down two subs thanks to injuries to Gonzalo Veron, and Gideon Baah. Both players succumbed to hamstring injuries.
Going into the locker room, Marsch felt like he knew what his team needed to right the ship. “I mean the funny thing for me was watching our team play nervy and a bit scared in the first half. Like we had the last two games and guys don’t want to lose balls and guys don’t want to make mistakes. I just tried to say to them at halftime like we’ve never been a team that plays scared, right? The very first conversation I had with our team way back when was that there’s no — the only thing there is no tolerance for around here is not playing with everything you have.”
For all that went wrong in the first half for New York, there was a familiar theme that they had done enough to be winning. They were out-passing and out-possessing the Dynamo, but they once again failed to put their chances away. When the team came out for the second half, their body language looked like a team defeated. Only one player stood in the center circle looking to lift his team mates up. Felipe. Felipe was standing there, clapping his hands, and shouting encouragement. It was unsurprising that his two brilliant strikes would be the magic the Red Bulls needed.
“I think he at halftime he knew he needed to step up.” said Marsch about Felipe. “They all did. And I think, again, the two guys on our team that have like grit and competitive edge are Dax and Felipe… the fact those two guys are in the middle of the midfield for us, I think that makes our team in many ways because they’re just so gritty and they don’t ever want to lose. I see it every day in training. Some days I have to like calm them down but that’s what makes them special, and that’s, frankly, what we need.”
While Felipe would go on to provide the moments of magic that made the Red Bull’s come from behind victory one of the most memorable in team history, the real change for New York came with their third injury. Ronald Zubar came up lame, just as Gideon Baah had done in the first half. The Red Bull’s bench was already thin thanks to the earlier substitutions. Karl Ouimette, the team’s only centerback option off the bench was already on the field. Instead, Jesse Marsch had to turn to Connor Lade. While Lade had played as a centerback in college, Marsch moved the diminutive defender to the left back position and slotted Kemar Lawrence inside.
It was this substitution that seemed to affect the team the most. Lade’s energy, along with his partnership of Mike Grella, opened the game up and brought life to a floundering attack. “I thought that now when Mike starts to come inside and really find the game, that leaves room for Connor to be pushing up on the wing and there was little movements and Connor joining in late and creating some advantages there on that side, and I think that was a big part of us really tactically getting in the game. And Connor runs his butt off. He just never stops, so that part was great.” Jesse Marsch elaborated on the pairing. In a way, Connor Lade has found himself in these situations through out his career.
The Red Bulls are now in a precarious spot. Their backline has been decimated to injury. There are just two centerbacks on the current active roster. Karl Ouimette and Zach Caroll. Given the nature of hamstring injuries, these two could well be starting for over a month. Any further injury would be catastrophic, as would a suspension. It is a situation New York found themselves in last year, only to discover young Matt Miazga who was so prolific in his single season as a starter, that he jumped ship for England in the winter. I don’t expect we will see quite the same thing from either Karl or Zach, but surely a compotent performance will not be too much to muster.
For now, the Bulls can hold their heads up for a win at home, but there is still a lot of work, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Will we see New York ride the momentum of the win following the international break? Time will tell.
Photo By Bill Twomey Photography