Successful soccer teams possess a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve and the plan they will use to accomplish their goal. Consistency over the course of the campaign allows players to know what is expected of them and helps to build team chemistry.
New York Red Bulls are a model of inconsistency. Head Coach Hans Backe called his line-up for Sunday’s televised clash with Seattle Sounders “an experiment,” according to ESPN commentator Adrian Healey. It looked destined to fail, and it took less than 20 minutes to tank. Still, a 2-2 tie at Red Bull Arena kept both teams in third place in their respective conferences.
This was another occasion where the Red Bulls team didn’t live up to the sum of its individual parts. Captain Thierry Henry, Kenny Cooper, Sebastien Le Toux and Joel Lindpere are among the foremost attacking players in Major League Soccer, yet Backe found a way to negate their usefulness in the early stages and leave his defense swamped.
New York started last season looking for an attacking midfielder who could dictate the play and create chances for Henry and then center-forward Luke Rodgers. They signed Dwayne De Rosario in April – the best player in this position in MLS during the past 10 years – and then shunted him off to D.C. United within three months to focus on their creaking defense.
And so, one year on, the Red Bulls this week sought to re-address that continuing lack of a playmaker by trading Dane Richards to Vancouver Whitecaps in return for Le Toux. That presented Backe with the issue of accommodating three forwards who perform most effectively from central areas.
An untried 4-3-1-2 formation saw Henry dropping into the hole behind twin strikers Le Toux and Cooper, leaving the diminutive trio of Connor Lade, Dax McCarty and Lindpere looking woefully overmatched in midfield before a ball had been kicked.
Seattle began life in MLS with a 3-0 win over Juan Carlos Osorio’s Red Bulls in March 2009. Richards had been the last surviving member of New York’s squad from that evening until last week’s transfer. By contrast, Sigi Schmid remains at the Sounders’ helm and seven of that squad remains including Fredy Montero and Brad Evans, the goalscorers on that night.
Schmid lined his team up in their familiar 4-4-2 formation with Argentine designated player Mauro Rosales supporting former United States international striker Eddie Johnson up front. Evans replaced Alex Caskey on the right of midfield – the only change from Seattle’s 2-1 win over Colorado Rapids one week earlier.
Red Bulls Run Ragged in Unfamiliar Formation
Rafael Marquez has proved time and again that he is a liability in central defense. Henry has proved time and again that he is most dangerous around the penalty area rather than hanging back in midfield. Still, Backe opted to use both of his designated players in these roles during a cringeworthy opening 20 minutes that saw Seattle over-running the hosts.
Johnson peeled off Marquez’ shoulder with ease on nine minutes to receive a long ball over New York’s defense from left-back Marc Burch. The former Fulham forward immaculately plucked the ball out of the air with his first touch before whiffing his shot harmlessly wide.
Marquez was left spectating again two minutes later when Johnson skipped around him in midfield. Henry’s sloppy layoff conceded possession to Andy Rose, who quickly fed Evans as Seattle countered. Evans found Johnson and continued his run into the penalty area to receive the striker’s return pass. The Red Bulls’ debutant goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, also acquired during the week from Los Angeles Galaxy, was well-positioned near his penalty spot to block Evans’ shot.
Brandon Barklage bailed out Marquez on 12 minutes after Johnson stepped inside the Mexican international on the left flank as if dribbling past a training cone. The St. Louis native’s poor clearance was seized upon by Rose, and the move ended with Alvaro Fernandez’ shot being deflected for Seattle’s first corner.
The schoolboy errors continued. Rose tackled Henry as the Frenchman implausibly tried to dribble out of his own half. Fernandez found Rosales on the left wing before breaking into the penalty box for the return cross. The Uruguayan headed over Gaudette’s crossbar.
Seattle’s breakthrough finally came on 16 minutes. Right-back Adam Johansson pinged a deep cross beyond the far post that found Fernandez sneaking in behind Barklage to expertly steer his volley into Gaudette’s far corner.
Backe stemmed the bleeding minutes after New York fell behind. Henry moved up front to support Cooper and Le Toux dropped to the right side of midfield where Lindpere had surprisingly started. The left-footed Estonian moved into the center alongside McCarty to combat Seattle’s numerical supremacy in that area.
Marquez jogged straight down the Red Bull Arena tunnel on 21 minutes after being replaced by Wilman Conde. It was later announced that this change was due to a left calf injury rather than for tactical reasons.
The Red Bulls grabbed a tying goal five minutes later that owed more to Seattle’s defensive casualness than any attacking nous. Cooper was given too much space at the edge of the Sounders’ penalty area to control Lade’s pass and set himself up for a shot. Goalkeeper Bryan Meredith palmed the ball onto his six-yard line. Le Toux was first on the scene to notch a debut goal.
Both teams had chances to take the lead before the interval. Rosales stayed on his feet on 31 minutes when Roy Miller appeared to whack his legs inside the penalty area – an action that surely would have resulted in a penalty kick had the Argentine forward went to ground. Johnson forced Gaudette to tip over his bar one minute later after curling a shot toward the far top corner from the left of the penalty area.
The hosts had a stronger penalty claim on the stroke of half-time when Osvaldo Alonso inexplicably swatted Lade’s cross out of play with his right hand as Henry lept to volley the ball goalward. Referee Jorge Gonzalez bizarrely awarded a corner kick. Central defender Markus Holgersson thumped a header off the crossbar from Henry’s outswinger.
Better Balance Gives New York Early Second-Half Edge
The Red Bulls started to use more familiar attacking patterns to grab the ascendency early in the second half. Lindpere drifted out to the left wing on 51 minutes to hang an enticing cross to the back post for Henry to attack. The former Arsenal man nodded the ball down to Cooper on the six-yard line, but his shot was quickly crowded out.
Henry slipped Lade through on goal from the inside-left channel a minute later after Johansson wandered infield. The rookie finished emphatically from a similar position against Harrisburg City Islanders in the U.S. Open Cup in May. This time he fired disappointingly into the side-netting at Meredith’s front post.
New York went ahead on 61 minutes after another fatal moment of hesitancy in Seattle’s defense. Barklage found Lindpere running into space behind the Sounders’ back line after midfielder Rose stopped tracking the Estonian’s run from deep and former Red Bulls defender Jeff Parke hesitated in expectation of an offside flag. It didn’t arrive. Lindpere cut onto his favored left foot and drove an accurate low shot inside Meredith’s near post from 20 yards.
Montero Claws Back A Point For Seattle
Schmid introduced Montero for the fading Morales on 62 minutes. The Colombian leveled the score within five minutes of his arrival as New York’s defense took its turn to be statuesque.
Alonso found Johansson pushing forward into the Red Bulls’ half and Evans made a break into space on the wing as Miller pushed out to confront the Swedish full-back. Evans’ charge caught Lade ball-watching and the 22-year-old couldn’t recover the ground before Johansson’s pass found Evans at the edge of New York’s penalty box. Montero swept the former Columbus Crew midfielder’s cross into Gaudette’s far corner with a deft first-time finish.
Johansson proved the value of putting a defender on the post at corner kicks on 75 minutes as he booted McCarty’s header off the line. Seattle responded with another quick counter after Holgersson carelessly turned the ball over trying to pass into midfield. Fernandez intercepted and found Johnson, who quickly fed Montero in Seattle’s attacking third. The Colombian had space and time to slide Fernandez in on the overlap to his right. Instead, he selfishly dragged a shot wide of the target from 25 yards.
Schmid made another couple of changes in the closing stages with Leonardo Gonzalez and Servando Carrasco replacing Rose and Evans. Montero posed a greater threat to the Red Bulls’ back line with his dropping off to link up the play between midfield and attack. Yet it was the Red Bulls who came closest to snatching the winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time despite not having any options available off the substitutes’ bench to alter the course of the game.
Lade’s industry forced a corner down the left side, and Miller rose to head Henry’s cross just wide of Meredith’s unguarded back post.