The New York Red Bulls can only blame themselves after the 3-0 thrashing they received against Atlanta United FC. After a season spent championing the Red Bull system, and team pressing as the star, Chris Armas abandoned the Red Bulls’ most potent weapon.
This is not an unusual approach for Armas. The Red Bulls have pulled back on the press on the road since Armas took over in July. The results had been favorable, but trotting out a bunker and counter style against the Five Stripes is a concession. Allowing the home side to take control of the match early led to yet another playoff heartbreak in Atlanta. Circumstantially, you can point to some very unfortunate luck, the Red Bulls shoulder the blame from top to bottom. The game plan was flawed, and the players didn’t execute.
Failure to execute or: How the Red Bulls ended their season by abandoning the high press
The loss of Kemar Lawrence before the match forced Daniel Royer to play a deeper role, taking him away from goal, and leaving Bradley Wright-Phillips on an island at the top of the formation.
The goal called back after review deflated the team, and allowed the Five Stripes the opportunity to close the door on this series in the first leg.
But take a look at the surface level of the stats and you could tell the result without watching the match.
In their first meeting this season, the Red Bulls won 27 tackles against the Five Stripes. Atlanta United managed just 16 tackles in the match. Josef Martinez had a single shot. Miguel Almiron created one chance. The Red Bulls walked away 3-1 victors. Watching the highlights from the match, it was obvious that the Red Bulls frustrated Atlanta United by pressing and creating turnovers leading to chances.
Fast forward to the Red Bulls 2-0 victory over the Five Stripes at Red Bull Arena. In that match, the Red Bulls put on a pressing master class, and once again, Atlanta United left Harrison, NJ frustrated. The Red Bulls out-tackled Atlanta United 18 to 10 in that match, and Martinez failed to register a shot in the match. The Red Bulls pulled off the lopsided victory without Bradley Wright-Phillips or Tyler Adams on the field.
This weekend’s Eastern Conference Final looked a bit different. The Red Bulls came out with a conservative approach. They looked to bunked and counter. The Red Bulls treated Atlanta United the way so many teams in the league did this season. They sat back, and gave a very talented attack the opportunity to find a rhythm. Tyler Adams had a shockingly bad match, and it is no surprise that the team’s fortunes also faltered. Adams is the Red Bulls rock, and his ability to help control the flow of the match for the Red Bulls is critical to their success. His absence made it easier for Atlanta to pass through the midfield.
If you allow Atlanta United possession and opportunity, you will lose.
“We made it a little too easy for them,” said Captain Luis Robles after the match. “When you have a team as talented as them, and you make mistakes, they are going to punish you. We have a great group here and, in my opinion, it is a very special group. It is because of that the belief is going to be that we can turn this thing. It is very difficult, near impossible, but we are just going to continue to believe that we are going to do what it takes to get it done. We will just take it one goal at a time and on Thursday we will come out flying and do everything we can to advance.”
The Five Stripes out tackled the Red Bulls, a rarity for any team this season, 18 to 14. The Red Bulls had one player complete more than 70% of their passes. One. There isn’t a team in the league that could win a playoff match like that.
The season isn’t quite over yet for the Red Bulls, but the writing is firmly on the wall. Armas and the Red Bulls must erase an enormous deficit while playing a perfect match. Can they pull off such a miracle?
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography