HARRISON, NEW JERSEY – It isn’t a new criticism to say that New York City FC have historically crumbled under the spotlight of a big stage.
But this one felt different.
This match was expected by many to be the best iteration of the Hudson River Derby to date, with both squads re-tooling in the offseason. City and the Red Bulls both cast off dead weight, got younger, and filled key positions of need with impact players from around the world. Top to bottom, NYCFC and RBNY have two of the best squads in MLS and certainly the best squads either has had for the Derby.
One of those squads looked that way Saturday afternoon. The Red Bulls came out firing – as they always do – and within five minutes the Pigeons found themselves chasing a two-goal deficit and a raucous, hostile crowd. After Bradley Wright-Phillips headed in his customary goal, chants of “WE WANT SEV-EN” rained down from the rafters.
And it wouldn’t have surprised anyone to see that “collective nightmare” play out once more with the effort put in by the Boys in Blue.
Know Thy Enemy
The late Dennis Green’s post-game quote after his Arizona Cardinals took a disappointing loss to the Chicago Bears comes to mind: “They are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook.”
Jesse Marsch’s Red Bull side didn’t do anything special or unexpected. Even the few players who (to their credit) remained after the match admitted as much. The out-of-the-gate, high-energy press is something everyone who’s watched Red Bull since Marsch took over knew was coming. Patrick Vieira knew it was coming.
My mother, whose only exposure to soccer is watching NYCFC matches with my father, knew it was coming.
And yet, before the smoke from the introductory pyrotechnics had cleared, before a large portion of the fans visiting Red Bull Arena that day had parked their cars and found their seats, NYCFC found themselves punched square in the jaw.
What followed was perhaps among the most heinous and complete defeats in City’s short history. Only when the home side stopped trying to score did NYCFC begin to establish some semblance of a rhythm, and even then it was all for naught. The forwards were out of sync – with flick after flick rolling harmlessly into empty space. The City defense made it look like Red Bulls were playing with an extra man, constantly losing the likes of Florian Valot and Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, who seemed to move freely, cutting in and out into space.
Vieira, who indicated he would have substituted every outfield player at the half if he were able, expressed his disappointment:
“I’m frustrated about the competitiveness – about the desire we had on the field and I’m prepared to accept that we can lose games, but the way we lost today – the lack of conviction, the lack of competitiveness – this is something I can’t accept.”
Vieira was adamant that he did not want to single out any particular player’s performance, characterizing the match as a “collective nightmare.” His half-time substitutions – surprising removals of both Anton Tinnerholm and Maxime Chanot – was a shift for the first time this season to a 3-man back line. Attempting to overwhelm the Red Bull midfield with numbers wasn’t effective. NYCFC did have more control of the ball, but it was because the Red Bulls were allowing it. Any passes forward were instantly closed on and dispatched without issue.
Will The Real NYCFC Please Stand Up?
First with Portland and now with the Red Bulls, the formula for beating NYCFC is out there. Ever since the playoff series against Toronto two years ago, the blueprint for beating City has been to stop their attack before it gets going.
Not every team has the personnel capable of sustaining that kind of pressure, but for those that do – like LAFC – there is a real chance. NYCFC has not lost two matches in a row since April 2016, and LAFC has mostly beaten up on lesser teams in their inaugural season. The Boys in Blue will have to dig deep and make a statement away from home if they are to truly exorcise this loss from their own minds and those of their supporters. For their part, NYCFC remains near the top of the league – 2 points off both the Eastern Conference and Supporter’s Shield summits, behind Atlanta.
This is still a good team; one of the best in American soccer.
It’s time to remind everyone.
New York City FC travels to Banc of California stadium to take on LAFC this Sunday, May 13th at 8:30pm Eastern on FS1.