5 Lessons Learned from the New York Red Bulls' 1-1 Draw Against the LA Galaxy
The Red Bulls dictated the pace of the game from the opening whistle, again putting their game plan of high pressure on display early and often. They were undone in the ninth minute by a moment of brilliance from 18-year-old Bradford Jamieson IV, but they allowed few other opportunities for the Galaxy.
New York managed to find an equalizer in the second half, but no more. Bruce Arena's team clearly and understandably was content with leaving Red Bull Arena with a point, which made New York's task of finding a game-winner incredibly difficult. The Galaxy deserve credit for executing their game plan well.
But for Jesse Marsch's Red Bulls, six matches have now passed, and the 2015 season is beginning to take shape. Sunday's match against the Galaxy came with some valuable lessons with regard to what is going right and wrong in Harrison.
Chris Duvall Is Improving, but Still Has Work to Do in His Defensive Third
If there is such a thing as the curse of the commentator, it certainly shone through early in the first half of the Red Bulls' match on Sunday.
ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman was heaping praise on young right back Chris Duvall for his performance so far this season, noting how much he had improved since being benched against the Galaxy last season in the midst of a 4-0 drubbing in Los Angeles.
Indeed, Duvall's play has improved since last season. His willingness to get into the attack remains high, which draws some attention off winger Lloyd Sam. But more importantly, his defensive play had improved going into Sunday's game.
Duvall went the distance in each of New York's six games this season and had yet to be culpable in any of the goals the Red Bulls had conceding coming into this match.
But, only moments after Twellman rightfully praised him, Bradford Jamieson IV made Duvall look foolish. A counterattack, the Galaxy's first offensive chance of the game, ended with a one-on-one situation between Jamieson and Duvall. Jamieson got around Duvall with ease, then rocketed a shot to the far post past Luis Robles.
All of a sudden, it was an LA nightmare for Duvall once more.
He is a more than competent right back and still only 23 years old, but Duvall must improve his one-on-one defending. The nature of the high-pressing style the Red Bulls play is such that counterattacks like the one the Galaxy scored on will happen two or three times a game. New York needs to be able to rely on Duvall, as well as the rest of its defenders, to be able to deal with the danger in those moments.
If doing so means occasionally taking a yellow card or conceding a corner, so be it. But allowing so much offensive pressure to go to waste because of one bad defensive play is unacceptable.
The Red Bulls Must Involve Lloyd Sam Offensively Whenever Possible
Manager Jesse Marsch decided to use Sal Zizzo at left wing instead of Mike Grella against Los Angeles because he felt that Zizzo matched up well against Galaxy right back Dan Gargan, per Bleacher Report's Joe Tansey.
While New York's only goal came from a Zizzo cross, the strategy still proved to be questionable. By focusing on Zizzo and the left, the Red Bulls took opportunities away from Lloyd Sam down the right wing, where most of their offensive success has been found this season.
The result was a possession-heavy performance light on serious scoring threats. Outside of Bradley Wright-Phillips' golden opportunity to level the match in the 13th minute off a Sacha Kljestan cross, the Red Bulls had no dangerous scoring chances until Felipe Martins headed home the equalizer in the 58th minute. So, it seems wrong to say that the Zizzo-focused approach to attacking was a total success.
In 67 minutes, Sam attempted two shots from relatively harmless areas and attempted three crosses, only one of which found its target. He did not record a single dribble take-on attempt.
Sam, who had three goals and an assist through his first five games, simply was not given sufficient chances to break down a Galaxy side that was bunkering down after the opening goal. This shortcoming seemed to severely limit what New York could do going forward.
Sam was substituted out in the 67th minute, an understandable move by Marsch, given the team's hectic schedule this week. But Marsch will be making a big mistake if he does not focus his attack around Sam in the next two matches.
The Red Bulls Need to Keep Bradley Wright-Phillips from Being Isolated
Bradley Wright-Phillips is being asked to change his game significantly this season.
He spent much of last season as a striker looking to get in behind defenses to latch onto picture-perfect passes by Thierry Henry and Peguy Luyindula—obviously that plan was successful, and Wright-Phillips led the league in goals with 27.
This season, Henry and Luyindula are gone, so Wright-Phillips is being asked to drop deeper and play not only as a striker, but as a playmaker as well.
When he is involved in the play, it has worked. Wright-Phillips has three assists already this season, more than he had in 34 matches last season. He also has two goals.
When the Red Bulls struggle to get him the ball, though, he becomes a non-factor. He had an excellent scoring chance in the 12th minute that was stopped by Jaime Penedo, but he barely got another touch on the ball until his deflected shot caromed off Felipe Martins' head and into the back of the net.
Wright-Phillips had no completed passes in the final third, only one take-on (which was unsuccessful) and only one drawn foul, which was more than 30 yards from goal. These numbers do not tell the story of an unsuccessful player, they tell the story of a player who simply did not get enough chances to impact the match.
This was the result of two different issues.
First, for the last 15 minutes of the match, the Red Bulls resorted to playing a ton of balls over the top, which played to the strengths of the Galaxy's back line and the weakness of Wright-Phillips. Omar Gonzalez, 6'5", was more than content heading away the danger, repeatedly out-jumping the 5'8" Wright-Phillips.
Second, and more importantly, Sacha Kljestan is still adjusting to his role as a No. 10 and playing directly behind Wright-Phillips. This is not to say that Kljestan played poorly, as he had four of New York's nine key passes during the game. But he is clearly still shaking the tendency to play closer to Dax McCarty and Felipe Martins, deeper in the midfield.
During his time in Belgium with Anderlecht, Kljestan played a role more akin to what Martins does for the Red Bulls, sitting deep in the midfield, pulling the strings from there and occasionally foraying forward. But now, Kljestan must play farther up the pitch and closer to the striker.
With his height, playmaking ability and finishing, Kljestan has the ability to become the No. 10 Marsch sees him as, but he must first get more comfortable playing farther up the field. Without that positional awareness, New York ends up with 15 or 20 yards of space between its midfield and striker.
Whenever that happens, Wright-Phillips will struggle.
High-Press Game Plan Keeps Pressure off the Center Backs, Who Are Doing Well
If you had told Red Bulls fans last September that they'd be relatively content with the play of Damien Perrinelle and Matt Miazga as the team's starting center backs through the first six matches of 2015, they would have laughed in your face. But that is exactly where New York stands.
The success of Perrinelle and Miazga comes from two factors.
First, they have simply played well when called upon. Miazga's stats from New York's 2-0 victory over San Jose were historically good—eight aerial wins, eight clearances, seven interceptions and four tackles. As Ben Baer of MLSsoccer.com pointed out on Twitter, only three players in MLS have matched that in a single game since 2010.
Perrinelle has not had a single performance as impressive as Miazga's against San Jose, but his calming veteran presence has been key for the Red Bulls' defensive success. On a back line composed of Duvall, (23), Miazga (19) and Kemar Lawrence (22), the experience and leadership of the 31-year-old Frenchman has been instrumental in holding everything together at the back.
But the play of the rest of the Red Bulls has been just as important, in particular the style of play they employ. Under Marsch, New York has set out to play a high-pressure, energetic style of soccer which has been largely successful.
There has been much discussion about how this play creates chances for the Red Bulls' attack, which is justified. But, just as important, the high line that New York imposes on its opponents means the team is possessing the ball more than in past seasons.
Against Los Angeles, the Red Bulls had 60.7 percent possession, including 78.4 percent in the final 15 minutes of the match. Obviously, any time spent with the ball is time that Perrinelle and Miazga are not being asked to defend, which makes their lives much easier.
Also, because the Red Bulls are making a concerted effort to push up the pitch, when opponents do have the ball, it is often 50 or more yards from Luis Robles' goal.
For the defenders, particularly Perrinelle and Miazga, the main challenge with this tactical setup is defending the counterattack. New York often has the ball and numbers forward, so when the ball is turned over, it falls on Perrinelle and Miazga to slow down the counterattack.
Against the Galaxy, it was Duvall who let the team down in this respect. Against D.C. United, Miazga got caught too far up the field in the buildup to Perry Kitchen's second goal, an inexcusable mistake for a central defender on a team playing as the Red Bulls do.
Outside of these two errors, though, New York has managed counterattacks fairly well, thanks in large part to Perrinelle and Miazga.
The Red Bulls Have Had Their Way with Top Teams in the League
All but one of New York's games so far have been against playoff teams from last season. The Red Bulls have out-possessed their opponents in every match this season. They dictated the tempo for 90 minutes on the road against the Columbus Crew, a club thought to be on the verge of a breakout this season. New York remains the only undefeated team in MLS.
The biggest takeaway, then? The New York Red Bulls have had their way with every team they've played this season.
The final product is not quite there in some instances, which is understandable, considering the team is only a few months into a new regime. But the game plan and the talent have been on display from the start.
There is no doubt that the Red Bulls must do a better job of involving Sam and Wright-Phillips in the attack, but even when they have struggled to do so, the Red Bulls have still managed to get results.
The midfield has been downright dominant at times, but it is still formidable even when underachieving.
The defense, which was easily the biggest question mark coming into the season, has been above average. Considering that New York has allowed less than a goal per game in the absence of Ronald Zubar and Roy Miller, both of whom were expected to play major roles for the Red Bulls this season, things seem to be under control at the back as well.
The Red Bulls are not going to become a defensive stalwart any time soon, but the defense will be more than good enough to keep them in games.
As the season continues, it will get harder for the Red Bulls to play their brand of high-pressure soccer. Teams will begin to adjust to their tactics, and heat and schedule compression will take a toll on the fitness levels of players in this taxing setup. At some point, Marsch may need to develop a viable contingency plan for the Red Bulls.
But for now at least, the Red Bulls can take pride in the fact that they have been able to push some of the MLS's top teams to the brink, enforcing their will over the first six matches of the season.