No team took a worse beating in week 2 of the MLS season than did RSL, their 5-1 loss to expansion side LAFC was beyond embarrassing. I kept hearing it was an anomaly, and I sure hope it is true this time, because we heard the same thing at the end of the 2014 season when RSL lost 5-0 in the playoffs to the LA Galaxy and that has been followed by 3 seasons of mediocre at best soccer. Is it harsh to bring that up, yes it is, lots of things have changed but the reality is shocking losses can do more damage than just a single loss. They can lead to finger pointing and distrust in a locker room that can spread like a cancer destroying good teams. So when they take the pitch on Saturday, it may not seem like anything more than just another match, but I expect it will be much more than that.
The New York Red Bulls come into Rio Tinto coming off a midweek win in CCL action that saw them advance to the semifinals by eliminating Club Tijuana with wins in both the away leg last week and the home leg on Tuesday night. That came on top of their 4-0 thrashing of the Portland Timbers last weekend in the Red Bulls MLS season opener at home. Much like RSL the Red Bulls are in the middle of a transition period for their team, with young players and new international players. In their win over Portland four players made their MLS debut (Kyle Duncan, Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra, Ben Mines, and Hassan Ndam) while 3 others had under twenty MLS matches under their belts (Derrik Etienne Jr.,Fidel Escobar, and Vincent Bezecourt). Perhaps there was no better feel good moment in all of MLS than when 17 year old homegrown player Ben Mines scored his first MLS goal, which would prove the game winner.
This will be a match where RSL’s defense must show up and show up big, the Red Bulls have scored multiple goals in four of the five meaningful matches they have played this season and while Bradley Wright-Phillips remains their main scoring threat he is not alone in that category, here are the players have scored for NY Red Bulls so far this year, (Royer, Wright-Phillips x4, Davis, Rivas x2, Mines, Adams, Rzatkowski, Kaku). If there is a silver lining to that potential dark cloud it is that none of these players have ever scored against RSL before. The only current NYRB player to scored against RSL is a classic villain in RSL history, Aurelien Collin.
So what do we need to focus on Saturday?
Key to the Match
Let It Go – I am not sure how, but for RSL to move forward they have to let go of the loss last weekend to LAFC and NYRB must let the excitement of making the CCL semifinals not interfere with getting the job done against a RSL team that should be focused on showing that last weekends results were an anomaly.
The battle will be in the midfield and while many look to possession numbers but those numbers mean little most of the time. The reality is the question is what you do with the ball when you have it, can RSL find a way to reduce turnovers in the middle of the pitch that gave LAFC so many chances to attack? Can RSL find a way to get players to fill in those midfield and defensive responsibilities when others go forward (will we see our outside backs even go forward this weekend)? What has impressed me about the NYRB midfield so far this season is how they move forward with numbers they have so many guys who can complete those key passes that you have to keep an eye on everyone.
If there is a trend you can find from their match against Portland it is that they like to attack up the left side of the pitch, if you look at their key passes and assists from that 4-0 win, all four assists were from the lefthand side. RSL has used Shawn Barry on the left and the reality is that he has done a solid job as both FC Dallas and LAFC focused their attack on the right hand side. I expect it is because Demar Phillips has spent most of the first two matches of the year going forward a lot to try to help spark the offense. This will be a match were RSL must either keep their outside backs at home or ensure that someone from the midfield is there to pick up the pieces when they go forward.
Players to Watch
Kyle Beckerman – Coming off the worst home loss in Rio Tinto history, the captain will need to lead the team in more ways than ever before. Beyond being a vocal leader on the pitch and in the locker room, he must elevate his performance on the pitch. Kyle has always led by how he plays, we need 100% for every minute, we need the Kyle who isn’t afraid of the hard challenge, who will get in your face no matter what color top you are wearing and let you know what is what. We have seen Kyle go off the edge at times and that isn’t what we need, we do need him so close to the edge that he can see the other side that will lead us to success on the pitch. The Red Bull midfield is now in the hands of Kaku (Alejandro Romero Gamarra) after the trade that sent Sacha Kljestan to Orlando. From the limited minutes I have seen of Kaku, he will keep Kyle very busy. It is time to lead and nobody in the history of RSL has done that better than Kyle Beckerman
Bradley Wright-Phillips – Not many ever expected that when BWP came to MLS that he would become one of the very best finishers in the league, but that is exactly what has happened, in 127 starts he has 87 goals and 17 assists. He isn’t unusually fast, or big, but he simply has a nose for goal that has twice won him the MLS Golden Boot award. At 33 years old he shows no sign of slowing down this year, in 5 matches he has 4 goals and 4 assists. The reality is no matter who is doing the work in the midfield, their job is to get the ball to Wright-Phillips and let him do what he does best. The centerbacks of RSL will have their hands full with BWP, but he is far from the only threat they will need to keep a very close eye on.
Given the result of last weekend, this is as much of a crapshoot as anything in recent history.
RSL is going to try to put last weekend behind them, can they? I hope so, but the reality is they are facing a very good NYRB team that is playing as well if not better than any team in MLS. This is a match that on a good day would be a challenge and I am not sure for RSL this will be a good day. RSL does have history on their side as in regular season action the New York Red Bulls have never won at Rio Tinto, so we have that going for us. I can’t pick a winner in this one, but I do know it should be an exciting match as one team is playing like they are on top of the world and the other is playing to prove they aren’t a welcome mat to be walked all over. I believe that for RSL to have a successful season they needed to once again make Rio Tinto a place that was a very difficult play for opponents to play, I still believe that but now it is up to the team to make it a reality.
I am very excited that RSL will honor Chris Wingert at halftime, of all the players I have met he is perhaps the most honest, sincere and all around good guy you could ever want to cross paths with.
That’s How I See It!!