The Outsider: Red Bulls Draw Real Salt Lake

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From Last Word on Soccer, by Martin Bihl

My feet have walked the green & pleasant pitch among these dark satanic mills before, but always as, if not a partisan of the visiting team, then at least one who’s focus was on the home team’s blue brothers.

But last week, New York City FC were gameless – so I headed to Harrison to experience a match in which I could actually exhale every once in a while; in which I could watch while not worrying about one side’s form over the other. In which I could perhaps learn a few things of value about both sides. And while I’m no Mark Fishkin, Russ McKenzie, Brian Dunseth or Kristan Heneage, here’s what I noticed when Red Bulls drew Real Salt Lake:

Real Salt Lake’s defense would bend, but not break.

In spite of an almost constant attack in the final ten minutes of the match, the RSL defense deserves full marks for leaving Red Bull Arena with a point. Time and again the home side had chances that were thwarted at the last possible moment by a defensive foot, head or other body part. You could say that’s luck, and certainly some of it had the air of a horseshoe. On the other hand, through four games RSL has only given up four goals. So maybe they’re not so lucky after all.

And speaking of not being lucky…

For a team that had just sacked its coach, RSL didn’t really look like it. Yes, they couldn’t create chances. Yes, they seemed to have only two attacking ideas – feed Yura Movsisyan or try to exploit Connor Lade. And when neither of those seemed to work they were pretty much done. But they held their shape (mostly). They played with energy (especially Luke Mulholland, who has a motor that never stops). And talking to them in the locker room afterwards, you could tell the team was fairly cohesive and connected (part of which can no doubt be attributed to Chris Wingert who showed the kind of leadership on and off the field we’ve come to expect from him). All good signs for a team clearly in transition.

Connor Lade is back and that’s a good thing

I confess, I’ve been a fan of Connor Lade since his debut back in 2012. He hustles, he fights, he’s always learning – and those are qualities that score high not only with me, but also with Luis Robles, who told me after the game that he was glad Connor was back too. When Lade went down last August with an ACL tear, I completely sympathized with Jesse Marsch (something I will admit to having difficulty doing) about the impact that would have on the team. And even though Red Bulls drew Real Salt Lake, Lade played great. They came at him as every one had to expect they would, and he met each challenge. And when he came off the pitch, the 16,000 faithful at Red Bull Arena gave him a nice round of applause. Personally, I was just glad his comeback didn’t happen against NYCFC so I didn’t have to be a dick about it.

Sacha Kljestan was not, and that’s a worrying thing.

Yes, of course, I know Kljestan was on international duty. But what seemed to become painfully obvious during the match was just how central to the Red Bulls game Kljestan has become. So central, in fact, that they had some obvious difficulty functioning without him. There was a lack of transition from defense to midfield. And there was some confusion on free kicks and set pieces, for example. For while Felipe seemed to be assigned to fill this role, one became aware how much his game relies on getting himself fouled – in order to set up free kicks – and how that upset the flow of the match, stopping attacks, losing advantages, and which may be a key reason Red Bulls drew Real Salt Lake. With Kljestan bound to have a role in the USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers, this could be a concern.

RBNY are big.

Sean Davis is 6’0 and Aaron Long, Damien Perrinelle and Luis Robles are all 6’1”. So is Sacha Kljestan actually. Hell even Aurelien Collin is filling up 6’2” of airspace on the bench So what? Well, imagine you were a team that had gotten significantly smaller in the off-season. You know, like say, a certain squad that plays in the Bronx . Jack Harrison is 5’9”; so is Tommy McNamara. And Andrea Pirlo. And David Villa. You know who isn’t? Maxi Moralez. He’s 5’3”. And while I would be the last person in the world to say that size equals success on the pitch, one has to expect that such a fundamental difference will impact the way NYCFC play their red brothers. Maybe they can get Patrick Vieira to suit up – he’s 6’4”. You think anyone would notice? Me neither.