The secret is out.
The Red Bulls had to believe that the rest of the league would, at some point, figure them out, how they like to press high, force teams into turnovers and just plain outwork and outhustle an opponent.
Now that everyone knows, it’s up to the Red Bulls to make any necessary adjustments. That, or just work harder to get back to the form they had just a few short weeks ago.
The Colorado Rapids allowed the Red Bulls to control the ball more than two-thirds of the game, sat back and absorbed the pressure, were content to just clear the ball away from their goal and use their speed to counterattack Wednesday night. The result was 1-1 tie before a disappointed crowd of 12,540 at Red Bull Arena.
For the first time in team history the Red Bulls are unbeaten in seven games to start a season (3-0-4), but following two 1-1 ties, there may be cause for concern.
“I think teams are sitting back now trying to clog things, playing direct, playing forward, trying to counter us, inviting possession through the middle and trying to jump on us – two teams in a row have kind of done that – and at home I think especially that'll be a factor more than on the road,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “And then we've got to figure out how to deal with it, both by being better with the ball in possession and creating more chances, and then also finding ways to press them even when they don't want to try to play and they're just going to try and play direct.
“A lot of that has to do with some of the reactions when we lose the ball, doing a better job of having the guys around the ball react quicker and go back and try and win it. Sometimes we did that in the second half and almost created opportunities, so yes, a little bit of a game plan against us that we saw in two games.”
The Red Bulls had 73.5 percent possession in the first half and nearly 69 percent for the game but managed just five shots on goal. Most of the possession came in their own end or in midfield as the Rapids dropped back to defend. There was little possession in the final third and no goals from the run of play. The Red Bulls goal came on a penalty kick by Bradley Wright-Phillips in the 30th minute.
The major question following the match was whether the Red Bulls were just not prepared for the Rapids’ game plan and team speed, or if they underestimated a team that came in with a 1-2-4 record and dead last in the Western Conference.
Clearly, the Rapids’ speed was a problem. Center backs Damien Perrinelle and Matt Miazga were caught flat-footed a number of times. Perrinelle in particular could not contain Rapids forward Dominique Badji, who had two of the team’s three shots on goal and probably should have scored on both if not for excellent saves by Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.
“Well, we talked about, they were definitely looking to counter us with speed and we talked about making sure that the center backs, once we lost the ball, didn't put themselves in one-on-one situations, but that the two of them dealt with it together,” Marsch said. “… To be fair, (the Rapids) did a good job of sitting back, trying to make it hard on us, trying to clog the center of the midfield, winning balls, playing forward quickly and trying to catch us on the counter. That was their game plan and it almost worked.”
The first save came in the 14th minute when Badji broke away from Perrinelle after collecting a pass over the top of the defense, but his shot from 25 yards was pushed away by Robles. The second came in similar fashion. Badji spun away from Miazga on a pass over the top, dribbled inside the arc and unleashed a shot that Robles partially blocked near the penalty spot. The ball trickled toward the goal, hit the base of the left post and deflected out for a corner kick.
“When we planned for them, we thought there were two ways that they could score on us: on set pieces and balls over the top,” said Robles, who was named Man of the Match. “In the first half they were dangerous; they utilized that. They were able to get a goal. I was surprised that they didn't continue to do that in the second half.”
The Rapids scored on a set piece in the 25th minute. Midfielder Dillon Powers took a free kick from the left side 34 yards from goal. He sent a cross to the center of the box where forward Gabriel Torres broke past Red Bulls midfielder Mike Grella to head the ball past Robles.
The Red Bulls tied the score five minutes later on Wright-Phillips’ penalty kick, his third goal of the year, following a foul by Rapids defender Ben Newnam on Sacha Kljestan in the box.
During the week, Marsch felt his team was experienced enough not to underestimate the Rapids, even though it was set up as a classic trap game, sandwiched in a seven-day span between the defending champion Galaxy and the Revolution, the Red Bulls’ Eastern Conference rival.
“In my opinion, no, I don't think we overlooked this game,” Kljestan said. “I think we started the game very poorly. I think we started the game on the wrong foot. They came out and put us under pressure, and maybe we didn't expect that, and we didn't handle that good enough. The effort was just lazy in the first 10 minutes. The second half was much better. We created a lot more chances, but overall, big disappointment."
Added Wright-Phillips: “Not at all, we took this game so seriously. It's a MLS game. I don't think that that's even the case. We tried to win the game and we just weren't good enough.”
What was more troubling was that for the fourth time in seven games this season the Red Bulls surrendered the first goal of the game.
“It's getting annoying,” Kljestan said. “It's not the way we want to start the games. I think it comes down to a little bit of focus. The mentality had been so good to come back, but why are we putting ourselves in that position? Set piece goals were definitely something we've been working on. We want to be one of the best teams in the league at defending set pieces, and so far it has not been good enough. Sometimes it comes down to good individual play and sometimes it comes down to just having a good mentality at the kickoff.”
For the second straight home game the Red Bulls left points on the table and now find themselves one point behind the Revolution and D.C. United, who are tied for first place in the East. The Red Bulls have a game in hand on the Revs and need to take advantage of that on Saturday in a stadium where their season ended a year ago, one goal shy of advancing to MLS Cup.
“Yeah, it probably is a step backwards, but in the end it's still a draw so we're still undefeated, so we need to stay positive and we've got a tough match coming on Saturday and we've got to figure out how we're going to physically recover and make sure that we're ready to go to New England and get a result,” Marsch said. “But I think we want to continue to move forward in both the way we play and in the results, so right now the focus is moving forward.”