BY DAVE MARTINEZ
Last week’s loss to FC Dallas forced New York Red Bull’s head coach Hans Backe to tinker with his lineup. Facing a difficult challenge against Real Salt Lake, New York changed their formation, tactic, and personnel in an attempt to steal points on the road. Even with the alterations and overhauls, the result was frighteningly familiar.
”It’s very frustrating,” Backe told the media after the match. “I mean, we played a very good first half, defended very well, got some breaks. (RSL) didn’t create any chances.”
Having fallen behind to FC Dallas early in their season opener, and recognizing the same issues haunted previous results against Salt Lake, New York molded themselves in a preventive tactic to assure history would not repeat itself. “We’re looking back at all the games we had; we have never won against Salt Lake, and we have almost (always) gone down the first fifteen minutes one or two nil,” Backe observed. “Now we said we just need to have a clean sheet the first 15 minutes and start well and hope that the game can open up.”
Indeed, they succeeded in shutting down RSL early, but the game never really opened up for them.
New York lined up in a 4-5-1, featuring a defensive minded midfield triangle of Teemu Tainio, Dax McCarty and Victor Palsson, who earned his first start with the team. The formation disrupted Salt Lake early, but did very little to generate an attack. As the match settled, Salt Lake began to probe New York’s midfield and defense, searching for areas to exploit. By the 39th minute, a rare Red Bull attack yielded a Salt Lake counter which properly exposed the Red Bull’s backline en route to their first goal of the match.
“The way they scored their goal – our back four were way too high and we basically tried to put them offside,” defender Jan Gunnar Solli said. Fellow defender Stephen Keel agreed. “We were able to neutralize what they wanted to do and we were also able to counter that by switching the field quickly. It’s just one mental breakdown and they punish you.”
”Problem for us in the first half is that we gave away in the middle of the park five breaks,” the coach lamented. “That was just sloppy passing which cost us one goal and then we gambled on an offside which cost us a second one.”
Down by two, New York managed to string together a good sequence of possession and attack, but it was too little, too late. Though they controlled the ball for a good portion of the match, they did little to threaten a superior RSL side.
“It looked very good, but you can’t make these unforced errors against good teams. They will kill you,” Backe said. “And we had five in the first half – not under pressure, sloppy passing – it’s the difference between the teams.”
Keel agreed. “If you look at the four goals we’ve conceded (this season), it’s just mental lapses, a couple of (bad) decision making here and there,” the defender noted. “You clean those up, and we’re ok. It’s about being focused and being switched on for 90 minutes.”
Even with the changes in the tactical approach of the team, the match felt substantively recognizable. Overall, New York lacked creativity in the attacking third, consistency in the midfield and stability on the backline. A pair of mental errors once again sunk their chances and the team earned their second defeat in as many games.
Coach Backe saw a silver lining amidst the chaos. “A good sign was the way we responded after going down two nil, and we controlled the game, dictated the game, created a couple of chances – that’s a good sign and credit to the players for the way they responded after going down,” he said. “It’s by far our best game against Salt Lake in two years.”
Whether that assertion is right or wrong is debatable. New York’s identity crisis, however, remains a stark reality as they head into their home opener against an undefeated Colorado Rapids side.