If there ever was an example of “parking the bus” in front of the net, the Red Bulls-Philadelphia Union 0-0 draw last Saturday would be the best representation of that metaphor.
Parking the bus is soccer nomenclature used to describe one team playing ultra-defensively and inviting the opposing team to attack while hoping to spring counterattacks to steal a result. Philadelphia didn’t score, but, in the end, the Union came away as the happier team.
Despite having the advantage over the Union all across the stats sheet – ball possession, attempted shots and total passes – the Red Bulls couldn’t conjure an opening in the final third. While not the most exciting brand of soccer, the Union’s strategy of packing the midfield, putting numbers behind the ball and playing on the counter was effective and was able to disrupt New York’s attacking flow.
“It’s frustrating,” Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty said after the match. “But I think we expected it a little bit. We didn’t expect them to come in here and play a very open game. They came in here with a mentality to stay organized … we knew their game plan, it’s something we should be used to when we play at home.”
New York enjoyed the lion’s share of possession throughout the match – an eye-opening 63 percent – but the Red Bulls didn’t make their ball dominance count against Union goalie Zac MacMath. MacMath only had to make one difficult save throughout the entire match, a stoppage-time header from Brandon Barklage off a corner. The lack of quality goalscoring opportunities was something that stuck out in McCarty’s mind.
“We just weren’t decisive in the final third [Saturday],” he said. “We had a few half chances, had most of the ball, most of the possession throughout the midfield … at the end of the day, we weren’t dynamic enough going forward. We didn’t have enough movement, didn’t create enough chances, little stagnant with our ball movement. It was a little slow.”
Ball movement and tempo were things Tim Cahill harped upon when asked about the game. The Australian international also said that the Red Bulls needed a spark in the attacking third in order to unlock Philadelphia’s defensive shell. Unfortunately for Cahill, the Red Bulls were unable to find it.
[Ball movement] was too slow, 100 percent,” he said. “In a game, someone has to do something to change it. If that one bit of brilliance changes the game, then that obviously makes everything OK. We must have put in 30 crosses. We have to look at ourselves and quality of the ball, the timing. It’s not a bad thing; at least we’re creating chances. But it’s hard to comprehend because we were the better team.”
For head coach Mike Petke, it came down to execution. While the Red Bulls had their bright spots, Petke’s team didn’t do enough to get the three points.
“We didn’t do enough to win,” Petke said in the postmatch press conference. “We had moments – we had a lot of moments, actually. But overall, we couldn’t find a way.”
While the Red Bulls were left disappointed, the team still found positives they could take away from their draw with the Union.
Coupled with Sporting Kansas City’s 1-0 loss to San Jose, the 0-0 draw moved New York into a tie with Sporting for first place in the Eastern Conference. The standings remain tight at the top, with Montreal and Philadelphia just a point behind the leaders and Houston three back.
The Red Bulls also kept their first clean sheet since July 20, when they played to a scoreless draw with Toronto FC.
Holding the high-powered Union scoreless is something that the Red Bulls can build off of.
“The clean sheet is good confidence for the guys,” Petke said. “It’s good to look up there and see a zero. The zero on the other side is what we’re not happy with right now, but we’ll begrudgingly take a point and move on.”
Cahill took heart from the way the Red Bulls were able to grind out a draw despite not being at their best against Philadelphia.
“The only positive thing [about Saturday] is we played average and got a result,” he said. “We’re playing OK, we’re not playing unbelievable, but still can nick games.”
A Look Ahead: Chivas USA
It’s back to matters on the road Sunday, as the Red Bulls make the cross-country trip to Los Angeles to take on Chivas USA. (Full coverage is on MSG beginning at 4:30 PM)
Struggling mightily in the Western Conference – Chivas is dead last in the standings – the co-tenants of the StubHub Center have made more news off the field than they have on it. While the Red Bulls will be making the trek across the country, Chivas will be playing its third match of the week and is coming off a 3-1 defeat to FC Dallas at home Wednesday. Nevertheless, with their struggles away from Red Bull Arena this season, the Red Bulls expect another tough match.
“I still don’t think we always play very well on the road for whatever reason that is,” McCarty said. “This is still something that we’re trying to figure out. We need to go into Chivas expecting to get three points. Obviously on any given day they can come out and play and they’re a little bit unpredictable with the players they have … we’re going to have to be focused.”
Despite their tough record away from home, Cahill believes that the Red Bulls can put their past performances behind them and put in a good shift Sunday.
“It’s another big game for us and every point counts,” Cahill said. “Obviously [Saturday] we drew and go [into a tie for first place] … it’s all part and parcel of being a big club and dealing what’s thrown at you.”
In this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of season for the Red Bulls, it was Mr. Hyde who showed up for Coach Mike Petke in their 2-0 defeat last Saturday to the Columbus Crew.
With Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Lloyd Sam and Kosuke Kimura out with injuries, the Red Bulls lost their first-place standing in the Eastern Conference with a setback on the road. After back-to-back wins against Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City – the two top teams in Major League Soccer – the result against the Crew will no doubt be bitterly disappointing to the Bulls coach.
It’s something Petke has been harping on for the entire season, the consistency of his team week in and week out. On a given day, the Red Bulls can beat just about anyone in the league and play a direct, effective style of soccer that is very exciting. They can win back-to-back games against RSL and Sporting KC, looking as if they’ll be the favorites to lift the MLS Cup. On days like the one they had against the Crew, the consistency needed wasn’t there and they paid for it.
“We didn’t come with quite the right mentality and, as a result, we kind of put ourselves behind the eight ball,” Red Bulls assistant coach Robin Fraser toldMLSSoccer.com.
Without Henry and Cahill, the Red Bulls lacked a cutting edge in front of goal and some creativity from midfield, something they had in abundance when they upset Sporting KC. What Petke tried to do is replicate his success against Sporting – cede possession to the Crew, play a deep defensive line and spring lightning-quick counterattacks against Columbus whenever they could. Unfortunately for New York, the execution wasn’t there.
Still, the match was in the balance for most of the second half and, if it weren’t for a dubious decision by referee Allen Chapman, the Red Bulls could have escaped Columbus with a point. Chapman called a foul on Markus Holgersson in the 62nd minute for a push in the penalty box, something that wasn’t apparent during the live broadcast or replays.
Nevertheless, Federico Higuain stepped up and dispatched the penalty past Luis Robles to give the Crew a lead they would never relinquish. Higuain’s second goal in the 76th minute – a lovely chip from outside the box – was simply world-class quality and put the finishing touches on the match.
TAKING THE HARD ROAD
The Red Bulls will be back home Saturday against the Philadelphia Union, but New York’s problem this season hasn’t been its play at Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls have been dominant at home – a 7-2-2 home record – but they have had their struggles on the road this season, where they are 4-6-3.
“I have no doubt when we play at home,” Henry said after the Red Bulls’ home win over Real Salt Lake on July 27. “But away from home, it’s not the same team. So we have to manage our game away from home better.”
Fortunately for the Red Bulls, six of their last 10 matches will be at home. One of their matches on the road is at bottom-of-the-Western-Conference Chivas USA on Aug. 25, a match that New York can target for three points. Still, if the Red Bulls truly want to contend for the Supporters’ Shield (MLS’s award for the best team during the regular season) there’s no doubt the road form must improve. With their latest setback last Saturday, it’s back to the drawing board.
A LOOK AHEAD: PHILADELPHIA UNION
It’s a tight race at the top of the Eastern Conference with the Red Bulls just one point off East-leading Sporting Kansas City with 38 points and the Philadelphia Union sitting one point behind New York.
It sets up a tantalizing fixture this Saturday, an old-fashioned “six-point” game between local rivals. A win for the Red Bulls over the Union could move them back to the top of the table, while a defeat could cost their chance at being the top seed in the East.
The season series is tied at 1-1, with the home team being the victor in both matches. On March 30, the Red Bulls recorded their first win of the Mike Petke era, taking a 2-1 result at Red Bull Arena. The Union would take their revenge on June 23, blanking New York, 3-0.
This could be a high-scoring affair, featuring two of MLS’s most dynamic offensive teams – that is, if Henry can return to full health. The Union is loaded with attacking flair with forwards Jack McInerney and Conor Casey both ranking in the Top-5 for goals scored this season. McInerney leads the Union with 10 goals in 2013 and is penalty-box predator who earned a call-up to the US Men’s National Team for his performance with the Union. He’s a good foil for Casey, who’s a hulking target man of a striker with nine goals in 2013 and a player that will test the Red Bulls’ backline with his physicality.
But the man who has been the creative spark for Philadelphia this season is former Red Bull Sebastien Le Toux. The Frenchman leads MLS with 12 assists and has taken to being played in a wide role for the Union. He played wide left in the Union’s 2-0 win over DC United last Saturday, which means he’ll try and get at Red Bulls right back Brandon Barklage. A tireless runner and a relentless attacker, Le Toux can cause all sorts of havoc and can chip in with a few goals as well.
It might be hyperbole to consider Saturday’s match as a must win, but with how tight the Eastern Conference is, the best way for the Red Bulls to help themselves is to win their remaining home games.
FIRST-PLACE RED BULLS PUT ON TACTICAL LESSON IN WIN VS. SPORTING KC
Here’s one word to describe the Red Bulls’ 3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City last Saturday: Clinical.
Despite having just 35 percent of possession, 22 fewer attempts on goal and 219 fewer passes than Sporting KC, New York made the most of its chances. With three lightning-quick counterattacks, the Red Bulls were able to steal three points on the road and take first place in Eastern Conference. Even the players admitted that it wasn’t the prettiest of matches.
In the end, the only statistic that mattered was the final score.
It was a masterful tactical performance from head coach Mike Petke, setting up his side to play on the break. The plan was simple: Defend deep in the Red Bulls own half, get the ball quickly up the field and punish Sporting KC for committing men forward. This wasn’t a Barcelona-style tiki-taka, with intricate short passes; this was direct soccer, going right at a stretched Sporting defense with wing play being a major component of the victory.
The first goal scored is a perfect example of this. Dax McCarty was able to win the ball in midfield and quickly send a defense-splitting pass forward, finding the perfectly timed run of Jonny Steele. The Northern Irish winger beat the offside trap and fired a tracer of a shot past Sporting KC goalie Brian Nielsen to open the scoring.
The Red Bulls went into halftime tied after Kei Kamara equalized late in the first half, but Petke was able to change the shape of the game in the second half. He brought Lloyd Sam on in the 60th minute for Eric Alexander to play right midfield. The result was two goals in six minutes, with the Englishmen at the center of both tallies. Ibrahim Sekagya – who was making his Red Bull debut playing in center midfield in place of the injured Tim Cahill – found Sam streaking down the right wing. Sam laid off a deft little pass to the onrushing Fabian Espindola, who bore in on goal. Espindola fired a bullet far post to beat Nielsen and give the Red Bulls the lead in the 63rd minute. In a blink of an eye, the Red Bulls seized control of the game.
The game-winning goal was a classic transition from defense to attack, starting all the way at the back with Luis Robles. The Red Bulls’ goalkeeper made a save and began the attack with an Eli Manning-like heave down the field to Steele. With most of Sporting players up the other side of the pitch, Steele and Sam rushed up the field and made Kansas City pay for their numbers forward. Steele sent a tantalizing cross into the area, where Sam jumped onto it. The winger shimmied onto his left foot and placed a perfect shot into the back of the net for New York’s third score.
After Sam’s goal, it looked like the Alamo, with the Red Bulls fighting off attack after attack from Sporting KC. Although the home side would pull a goal back in stoppage time, New York held on and recorded its first road win since May 4. It must have been so satisfying for Petke to come up with the perfect gameplan and have his team climb to the summit of the East by winning away from Red Bull Arena.
“Sporting are a phenomenal team and they showed that [Saturday],” he told MLSSoccer.com’s Franco Panizo after the game. “We knew it was going to be tough coming into this game, we knew how well they play at home and we were looking more to do a bit of counterattacking today and the counterattacking goals, they worked to a tee.”
UP NEXT: COLUMBUS CREW
After recording two straight wins over two of MLS’s top teams, the first-place Red Bulls look to keep the momentum going with a matchup against the Columbus Crew Saturday.
While the Crew is languishing in the bottom of the standings, they still pose a tough challenge, especially with their attacking talent. Dominic Oduro is tied for fifth in MLS with nine goals scored and Federico Higuain – brother of star Argentina forward Gonzalo – is the top assist man, with six this season.
The man to watch will be Higuain, who plays in the creative/attacking midfield role for Columbus. Most of Columbus’ attacks flow through the Argentinean playmaker and Petke will no doubt be wary of threat from the 28-year-old.
For Petke, he’ll be interested to see if the Red Bulls can keep the momentum going after two emotional victories. After striving all season long to get to first place, any slip up would be considered a major disappointment. Despite holding a two-point advantage over Sporting Kansas City and a three-point lead over third-place Montreal, New York’s lead is precarious with Montreal having two games in hand.
Nevertheless, with the character team has shown in the past two weeks, it would be startling to see nothing less than a solid performance.