The Red Bulls have not fared well this season in games after extended periods of time off. Early in the year, when quirks in the schedule took away the rhythm of playing every week, the team tended to drop points. A perfect case in point was the Aug. 26 game against the Fire in Bridgeview, Ill., when the Red Bulls had 11 days off and lost to a last-place team.
So with Major League Soccer taking a break between the conference semifinals and finals this weekend for the FIFA international window, is this a good thing or a bad thing for the Red Bulls to have two weeks between games?
“It’s a different time of year,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “We learned from that lesson and I know that our team will be ready to go. It’s more about sort of managing the combination of (the) soccer (side) and the sharpness and the passing and the technical aspects of what we’re getting out of training, then making sure physically that we’re pushing them in the right way so that they’re staying fit and they’re ready to go, but it’s not too much so we’re risking injury.”
Basically, they have no choice. Marsch, however, makes a good point in that this is the playoffs and players will get revved up when the time comes. It’s also a good time for a break considering the physicality of the D.C. United series. Midfielder Shaun Wright-Phillips limped off the field with a hamstring issue after just 15 minutes as a second-half substitute, defender Kemar Lawrence played the final portion of the game after taking a knock, and goalkeeper Luis Robles took a boot to the shoulder diving for a cross.
“We’re hopeful that he’ll start training again in the next few days,” Marsch said of Wright-Phillips. “It’s going to take a little time. This break comes at a perfect time for him so we’re hopeful that we can start to ramp him up and get him ready for the next game, but we’ll kind of take it day by day. I don’t expect him to train Thursday or Friday, but we’re hopeful that come next week he’ll be a little bit closer.
“Every guy right now is carrying a little wear and tear and a couple of bangs here and there, but I think everybody understands what I’ve been talking about, which is staying sharp but also not physically pushing yourself too hard.”
Marsch knew the D.C. United series would be a physical one, and the Red Bulls were prepared for it, but that doesn’t take away the pain of the bruises. Still, Marsch felt his team followed the game plan, took the best D.C. had to offer, held them to two shots on goal in two games, and advanced thanks to a late goal in each leg.
“The D.C. series was a very physical one,” Marsch said. “It was about being competitive and gaining an edge physically on the field. We were very aware of that. We built that into how we played. … We came out on top of aerial duels, on duels, on second balls, on tackles. In a lot of ways we knew what kind of series we were going to be in and we made sure that we were going to understand that and handled it the right way.
“It wasn’t the prettiest series. It wasn’t the prettiest two games, us against D.C., but we came out on top, and not just on the score line (but) in a lot of the different categories of how the game was played. We feel good about where we’re at, it was a huge step forward for us right now and I thought we handled both legs really well. We’re better and stronger for that and we’re ready for the next series.”
With only a few days of training this week, Marsch plans to keep it light. He says the team isn’t even thinking about the conference final series against the Columbus Crew just yet.
“We’re not focusing too much on Columbus right now,” he said. “We know them really well. Right now it’s more about just having good training, keeping sharp, managing them physically, but also making sure that we’re staying fit, including sharp. It was a really good first day, it was a competitive day. All in all it was a good day of training.
“This week we’re really not emphasizing the playoffs, the next opponent. We’re more just trying to get out here and have good training. And then once we take the weekend off and come back again, I think then we’ll really start to hone in on making sure that we get our mentality right, that our game plan is set in place and that we’re ready for what the first game in Columbus is going to look like.”
Thursday is expected to be another light day. Then the team will have the weekend off before getting a full week of training in beginning Monday prior to the first leg. Nov. 22.
“We’ll lead up to a little bit of 11v11 work on Friday,” Marsch said. “We understand what the games need to look like and what our roles are on the big field. It’s a little bit about the rhythm of what the work week is like and now making sure that we build some of that in.
“We’re going to be doing a lot of playing this week and just kind of keeping the guys going. It’s not about a mental week as much as it’s just about continuing to push the sharpness and handling the physical part the right way.
“Looking forward to Columbus, we know it’s going to be a different kind of series. For us to get sharper and cleaner and now understand that it’s going to be a really good soccer game from both angles, and we need to be ready for that.”
As for the breaks and delays and the difficulty of getting thrown off your regular routine at such a critical part of the season, Marsch isn’t a fan of it, but he is comforted by one thing. There are 16 other teams that would give anything to still be playing at this point.
“This time of year it’s fun,” Marsch said. “There’s a lot on the line, but that’s why we do this for a living. That’s why all of us are involved in this, and certainly I think our team relishes in this moment and we’ll be ready for the next series and ready for a big task ahead of us.”