HANOVER, N.J. – By now, you’ve probably heard plenty about the New York Red Bulls’ inability to hold on to leads late in games. The conversation has been inescapable, but not unwarranted.
In quite frustrating fashion, the Red Bulls have gone into some hostile environments and managed to stake themselves to multi-goal leads, only to see that advantage crumble in the second half.
Thus far, the team has yet to find a solution to their late-game woes.
“We can’t avoid the discussion; it’s smack dab in the middle of everything we do,” head coach Jesse Marsch said. “It’s an obvious, painful reality that we’re in the middle of.”
It should be noted that amidst these late game follies, New York has continued on their historic run through the MLS campaign. Unbeaten in their last 12 league matches, the Red Bulls have earned at least a point in every match dating back to their July 3 defeat at Yankee Stadium.
“We’ve done some soul searching and we’re obviously frustrated, but we’re also very confident that we’re a good team,” Marsch said. “I understand that a lot of the dialogue out there is about these two-goal leads that we give up, but there’s also a dialogue internally that we’re a very good team and we haven’t lost in a long time.”
Indeed the Red Bulls have proven to possess all the tools to be considered amongst the league’s elite squads, but many are left to wonder what could have been had the team managed to hold onto their late leads, turning one point into three.
“It’s pretty ridiculous when you put the some of the stats together,” midfielder Mike Grella said. “You look at our 1-6 start and if we didn’t blow some of these leads, we’d have one of the best records MLS has ever seen.”
The frustration has been evident from top to bottom, and rightfully so.
Seeing late leads continually crumble has led to quite a few sleepless nights for many within the team. Even as they lament those missed opportunities, there still exists a great deal of drive to right the ship in time for the playoff push.
“We’re too good to be doing this,” Alex Muyl told NewYorkRedBulls.com. “It’s been disappointing, but it’s almost good that it’s happening now. I believe we’ll be able to fix it.”
As evidenced by its persistence over the past few months, the root cause of these breakdowns has been particularly difficult to identify. Once labeled as a “random trend” due to the variety of ways in which said leads were lost, Red Bulls players and coaches alike have spent hours in the film room in an attempt to correct the issue.
So what exactly has been the culprit? Tactics? Substitutions? Mindset? Formations? Fans and pundits have had their say, but what about the players and coaches responsible for implementing the change?
“I don’t think it’s a tactical thing,” Muyl said. “There was a stat that I saw from before this season that said when we went to five at the back, we never lost and had a plus-15 goal differential."
The “five-man backline” has undoubtedly been a hot button topic on fan forums and Twitter conversations of late, but just how much that has contributed to New York’s shortcomings is up for debate.
“We haven’t gone to five at the back that much lately,” said Marsch. “We did against Toronto because when they push two wingers out there, it means we need some help out there to deal with the wings. At times, we do feel that it does invite pressure. But it’s not inviting so much pressure that we’re crumbling and giving up chance after chance, it’s really just one or two plays.”
Surely the tactics play some role as they do for any team in any league. But when different tactics have been employed at different stages of the season to correct the same issue and said problem persists, perhaps something greater lies underneath.
“Whether we play three, whether we play four, whether we play five at the back, at the end of the game it’s really not about tactics,” defender Sal Zizzo explained. “I think a lot of guys would agree that it has a lot to do with the belief on the field. We can do more with playing with ball instead of shying away and kicking it away and have them come right back down our throat again. When we’re up a goal we need to have the confidence and belief to see things out as a team.”
Added Muyl: “You can play five at the back and still decide to play when you have the ball. That’s the switch we need to make; we need to be brave and continue to play.”
In almost each instance in which a breakdown has occurred, the Red Bulls have looked uncharacteristically timid in their buildup, a near 180 from the side that earned the two-goal lead they would eventually squander. Whereas a free-flowing, high-pressing unit was often rewarded for their industrious ways, a timid, reactionary side took its place when attempting to see the game out on the road.
Tactics and substitutions aside, perhaps this is New York’s greatest area of concern. What compounds the frustration is the evidence that proves that the Red Bulls are more than capable of putting the game on their terms, yet for one reason or another, that Red Bulls side has been conspicuously absent in various late-game scenarios.
“It’s about concentration, it’s having everyone on the same page, it’s tactics, it’s mentality; it’s everything,” Marsch added. “Ultimately, we think we can be better with the ball at times when we have the lead. Especially when the lead goes from two to one, now there’s a little bit more panic in our team, which means the commitment to try and play and still find the game with the ball lessens. It’s about our mentality to stay after the game in an aggressive way and not go into a shell and think ‘Here we go again.’
“We can’t be protective; we should be aggressive, on the hunt.”
Of course, putting that mentality into practice is much easier said than done. While the Red Bulls have demonstrated their dominance time and again, an inevitable feeling of dread has taken its place in recent times, and it won’t easily be eradicated.
Members of the team’s Leadership Council such as Luis Robles, Dax McCarty, and Bradley Wright-Phillips have met with Marsch in order to find a way to restore the team’s confidence, but the head coach has admitted that he is rightly the one tasked with correcting the issue.
“I deserve to be criticized,” Marsch stated. “With this happening over and over again, I’m a big part of this. It’s my job to come up with solutions, so I’m going to continue to challenge myself and have a feel for what to do when.”
Time will tell if the Red Bulls can put an end to this troubling trend, and with just four regular season matches remaining, there isn’t much time left to patch things up. But if past results are any indication of things to come, a correction course may well be imminent.
“We’re going to figure it out,” said Marsch. “It’s been painful, but it’s going to make us better and stronger. When we do get through this, we’re going to be much better for it."