photo by Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today Sports
By FRANCO PANIZO
HARRISON, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls are doing a whole lot of things right right now. They are in first place in the Eastern Conference, tied for third in MLS in goals allowed, and trail only the LA Galaxy in goals scored.
There is still an area where they know they need to improve.
The Red Bulls continued their run of good form and moved a step closer to the playoffs by defeating the Chicago Fire, 3-2, on Friday night. New York, however, needed to come back from an early two-goal deficit to avoid the upset at Red Bull Arena. Jeff Larentowicz and David Accam scored in the opening 26 minutes, but the Red Bulls dug themselves out of the hole by rattling off three unanswered goals.
While much of the talk postgame was positive and geared towards the resilience that Jesse Marsch’s club showed, there was also a candid admission from both the head coach and his players of needing to get better on defending counterattacks.
‘Rest Defense’, as they like to call it.
“It’s really the key to how we play,” right back Connor Lade told SBI. “We get a lot of numbers forward, and if we’re not organized behind the ball we can get exposed a bit.”
New York was exposed on Friday night on a handful of plays, but the one that really stood out was the one that led to the Fire’s second goal. The Red Bulls had a corner kick in the 26th minute, but a booming clearance by Michael Stephens near Chicago’s goal line caught the few New York defenders napping.
David Accam raced to the bouncing ball near midfield, blew by Lade, and cleverly faked out goalkeeper Luis Robles and the scrambling defender before slotting a shot home with ease.
Seven total touches, 13 seconds, and one aggravating goal.
“That’s really frustrating because it’s a good opportunity for us, and it turns into a great opportunity for them,” said Lade. “It’s frustrating as a player to give up a goal like that. It’s times like that where we can’t switch off. You can’t be like, ‘Alright a set piece, I’m a little tired right now, I’m going to switch off for a second and catch my breath.’
“You really don’t have that opportunity. You hear the coaches yelling from the sideline, ‘Rest Defense, Rest Defense.’ We’ve gotten better at reminding each other the places we need to be because that’s the key to how we play.”
One play could be chalked up to a fluke, but the Red Bulls have been punished on multiple occasions this season in transition. In fact, the Fire could have taken 3-1 lead in the first half on another lightning-fast counter, but Accam pushed an attempt wide after racing by another speedster in New York left back Kemar Lawrence
Chicago, despite being the worst team in the East right now, also used a similar recipe to stun Marsch’s side a few weeks ago. In that Aug. 26 game at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, the Fire absorbed pressure and took advantage of mistakes on the break to beat the Red Bulls, 3-2.
The blueprint laid out by Chicago is not one every team can repeat because there are only so many players with the speed of Accam and Kennedy Igboananike. Still, it is one that New York’s future opponents will likely look at in an effort to capitalize on the lack of numbers behind the ball.
“If you’re going to step out and play that aggressively, sometimes you’re going to be open in certain spots,” Red Bulls midfielder Mike Grella told SBI. “It’s part of the game, but we’re also definitely going to look at it, and it’s crucial, it’s crucial. I think it’s more important to not letting goals than to score goals. The best teams in the world are good at defending first. It’s something that’s crucial, something that we’re definitely going to look at no question.”
Added Marsch: “We know that with the way we play and how we play so much in our attacking end that it sets up to be countered. If we don’t take our chances well, we’ve seen it a few times this year, where even though we have a firm grasp on the game we find ourselves down.
“We’re fully aware that that is an area that we’re susceptible.”
There might be a need to improve, especially with the playoffs looming, but do not expect any drastic changes from the Red Bulls. They have found much success to this point in the season by sticking to the high press, and are so confident in their system that they never try to hide the way they intend to play against their opponents.
Nonetheless, there are things New York can do better when it does not have numbers back and isn’t as organized.
“You just kind of have to realize who you’re going up against, you’ve got to realize where you on the field,” said Lade. “If it’s a spot to maybe take a foul, if you realize maybe you’ve got wrong-stepped a little bit, maybe you’ve got to take the foul, take a card.
“It depends where you are. If you’re in and around the box, you have to try and hold them up and do your best to give them only one option. Hopefully it plays in your hands and if you delay them enough hopefully you get numbers to get back on and help you.”
‘Rest Defense’ was not as good as it could have been on Friday, but the Red Bulls still came out on top. Now if they can improve in that area in the weeks to come, there might not be a team that can stop them come playoff time.