Throughout all the shuffling on the Red Bulls defense this year, whether by injury, suspension or national team call-ups, the combination of Connor Lade, Matt Miazga, Karl Ouimette and Anthony Wallace had never started a game together on the back line.
Yet there they were Saturday night at Red Bull Arena about to face one of the most potent attacking teams in Major League Soccer in Toronto FC. On paper, it appeared to be a total mismatch.
And it was.
The Red Bulls’ defense stifled Toronto’s attack with physical play, shut down passing lanes, dominated possession and pretty much had their way on offense as well. The comprehensive 3-0 victory, before a roaring crowd of 20,685, solidified the Red Bulls’ hold on second place in the Eastern Conference, five points ahead of the Columbus Crew and five points behind first-place D.C. United, with three games in hand on the leaders.
“Everyone knows our system,” said Miazga, the only regular starter on the back line on the field Saturday night. “Every player knows it, every player believes in it, so when Damien (Perrinelle) and Kemar (Lawrence) went out, Karl and Anthony came in in a seamless transition. They did a great job. When one guy goes down the next guy is ready, and he knows what he has to do.”
Though the Red Bulls play a collective defense, with everyone on the field contributing, the back line is in the spotlight. They kept Italian international Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. internationals Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley off the scoresheet and managed three goals of their own. Ouimette had the job of marking Altidore, who hasn’t been in the best of form this season but is still a huge physical load to deal with.
“He’s a big player. He’s a player that you want to be careful with,” said Ouimette, who has never played against Altidore before. “You don’t want to dive in too much. At first I tried to win some balls diving in, trying to go in front of him, but he’s so strong, so big, and he’s just able to control the ball and hold it up for the team to come up. It was good to play that type of player and it was good to have had that challenge.
“We practice our shape and the way we move a lot, so obviously the communication is very important and everybody knows what to do. Whoever steps in is able to do the job and it’s good for the team.”
Giovinco, who has 16 goals and 11 assists this year and is one of the leading candidates for MVP, was particularly frustrated. The Red Bulls were physical with the 5-foot-4 forward, which kept him off-stride and unable to connect with his teammates.
“It was big. I had to be mindful of where he is all the time,” Miazga said. “He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s smart, he’s technical, so I had to be aware, but overall I thought that he wasn’t close to goal very much. He was mostly away outside the box. We tried to keep him away from the ball as much as possible, and whenever he had the ball we tried to double team him. I thought we did a good job. He didn’t get many chances.”
Altidore and Bradley were just as frustrated, as each picked up a yellow card in the first half. Altidore had an awful game, with errant crosses and poor ball control, while Bradley had little time or space to look up and view his options.
With those players in check, the Red Bulls went on the offensive and scored in the 27th minute.
Midfielder Mike Grella had the ball at the top of the box but was tied up by two defenders. Somehow, he found space between them and squeezed a pass to a cutting Bradley Wright-Phillips, who took it in stride and grounded a left-footed shot just inside the right post for his team-high 11th goal of the season.
“It was a great play by Mike,” Wright-Phillips said. “Mike’s got it in him to let a shot go from that kind of range and decided to play me the ball. I just needed to make a little darting run and he found me. After that, I just remember being on the ground.”
Wright-Phillips have scored again in the opening minute of the second half, but his shot from the right side of the box, off a feed from Dax McCarty, was deflected away with a dive by Toronto goalkeeper Joseph Bendik.
“Overall, their whole team was getting frustrated down the stretch,” Miazga said. “We had a lot of possession in the back and we were moving the ball quite well. They stopped pressing us a little bit and we found gaps and opportunities.”
One of those gaps and opportunities came in the 66th minute, and the Red Bulls (11-6-6) took advantage.
Sacha Kljestan slipped a pass to Wallace on the left and the defender took a dribble and blasted a sinking shot from 25 yards that zipped into the lower left corner for his second career goal.
“I’m happy for Anthony,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “Every time we’ve called on him he’s stepped up and done the job. It was an important goal for us at that moment. Getting a 2-0 lead was vital for us. We knew that at 1-0 they could still pull a play off at any moment.
“What’s been the best thing about Anthony is that every time he’s been called on, and when he’s stepped on the field, he’s had a confidence and a belief in himself. I think he’s established himself with his teammates, so his teammates have belief in him. It’s not always easy when you play a backup role at times, to keep yourself mentally sharp, physically sharp, in all different ways. It’s a big credit to Anthony, a big credit to him in these moments that when he’s needed, he’s stepped up.”
Forward Herculez Gomez made his debut for Toronto (9-10-4) in the 71st minute and immediately made his presence felt. Taking a pass on the right, Gomez drilled a shot on net that Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles had to leap to punch away. The ball found its way to midfielder Marky Delgado, who drove a low shot that Robles had to dive to parry as the ball was header for the lower right corner.
Robles finished with three saves to earn his second straight shutout and 25th of his Red Bulls career to break Tony Meola’s franchise record of 24.
“It’s pretty cool,” Robles said. “It’s pretty cool because growing up I looked up to Tony. He was such an icon on that ’94 World Cup team and, of course, playing for the MetroStars and eventually playing for the Red Bulls. He’s an icon in this area and he continues to be very involved in soccer. He’s been involved in my career here at Red Bull and I have only positive things to say about Tony. I know that he was honored last game, so for him to be there, that was special, and as soon as the week starts he'll probably send me a text saying, 'Congratulations.' He's such a class act and a great role model.”
But the Red Bulls weren’t finished. Designated player Gonzalo Veron made his second appearance for the club and scored the final goal in second-half stoppage time. Wright-Phillips took a shot from the left side of the box that was stopped by Bendik, but the ball bounced right to Veron, who slotted it between a couple of defenders.
“I’m not too focused on the message (the victory) sends to the league,” Marsch said. “There’s an awareness that we’ve been a good team this year, so it’s more about making sure that we try and honor what we try to do and honor our process and make sure that in all ways we step on the field every night and become better, push each other.
“For the most part this season we’ve done that pretty well. You can’t stop and enjoy any one moment too much, even after the New York series. We have to continue to go after this game after game.”