The Red Bulls of the past month have looked nothing like the team that took Major League Soccer by storm the first three months of the season. But that may be about to change.
Buoyed by a week off and a confidence-building victory over the Atlanta Silverbacks in the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, the Red Bulls have looked sharper and more energized in training. Perhaps just as important, the players that appeared down during a three-game losing streak look like they have their fire back.
That comes just in time because the Red Bulls (4-4-5) are entering a grueling part of the schedule with five games in 15 days, including a U.S. Open Cup match, beginning Saturday night against the Vancouver Whitecaps (8-6-2) at Red Bull Arena.
“We just strayed from our little chip-on-our-shoulder mentality that we had in the beginning of the season,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan explained. “We came out and we had the feeling that a lot of people didn’t think we were going to be good this season and we wanted to prove everybody wrong. Then we got a little overconfident, we didn’t do all the things we were supposed to be doing, we weren’t doing everything 100 percent, and that’s when things start to hurt you.”
The Whitecaps, second in the Western Conference, will be a good test. Their attack features striker Octavio Rivero, who leads the team with six goals, wingers Cristian Techera and Maura Rosales and attacking midfielder Pedro Morales (three goals, four assists). They are coached by former Red Bull Carl Robinson, who served as a player-coach under former coach Hans Backe.
“It’s an explosive team,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “They’re organized, and when they win the ball they play forward fast. They’ve got some clever players in the attack. They’ve got some mobile players. That has to be a big part of our game plan, addressing their transition and how explosive they can be when they win the ball.”
Fortunately for the Red Bulls, their defense is almost back to full strength. Ronald Zubar, playing for the first time since the season-opener, looked strong in his 45-minute stint in the Open Cup and could start against Vancouver. Matt Miazga has returned from the Under-20 World Cup and midfielder Sal Zizzo could see time as he returns from a broken leg.
“We’d like to start (Zubar),” Marsch said. “We’re not certain yet because there are some other question marks around different parts of the field and we don’t want to put too many guys at the start that may not be ready to go 90 minutes. … We need to get him going. The only way to get to game speed is to get in games. We don’t want to hold him back too much.”
Throw in Damien Perrinelle, who has had a superb season, and Marsch has some tough choices to make at center back.
“It will be great to have (Zubar and Miazga) back and it puts me in a situation where I’ve got to make a tough decision because I think we have three first-choice center backs now on our roster,” Marsch said. “We’ve talked with Matt. We think he did really well at the Under-20 World Cup. He’s come back more mature and more confident and even more established. We’ll see how we move forward, but I have some tough decisions. We’re going to stick with four in the back, but it will come down to two of those three.”
The Red Bulls will likely be without midfielder Lloyd Sam, who injured his ankle and groin in the Open Cup victory. Marsch, who said Sam’s ankle issue is minor, may play it safe and hold Sam out until the June 24 game against Real Salt Lake.
“We’re quite lucky in that position,” forward Bradley Wright-Phillips said. “We’ve got Dane (Richards), we’ve got Sal (Zizzo). … We’ve got a few players that can step in. Sacha can play wide. We’ll be alright, but Lloyd will be missed.”
The Whitecaps will be playing the third of five straight road games – they are 1-1 so far – and won’t play at home again until July 12. The Red Bulls have never beaten Vancouver, but playing at home and with a squad almost at full strength, everything could be falling into place to get the grueling stretch off to a winning start.
“What we enforce is putting people under pressure and making things uncomfortable for them,” defender Chris Duvall said. “We’ve had a few weeks in practice to work on things and we should be able to implement it on the field.”