PORTLAND, Ore. – As attack after attack rained down upon the New York Red Bulls on Sunday night, one question became more pressing than the rest: Why can’t this team get ahold of the ball?
New York spent the better part of an hour putting out fires all over the field, but couldn’t do much to stop them before they started. The Portland Timbers cranked up the heat, put a terrible first half behind them and scrambled back from a two-goal deficit to salvage a 3-3 draw in front of yet another sell-out crowd at JELD-WEN Field.
Portland did it by dominating possession – they had 62.9 percent – and using it to carve out chance after chance, never letting the Red Bulls put the game away.
“We went into the second half with the mindset that it was zero-zero, and we let it get away from us,” said New York head coach Mike Petke. “I’ll take most of the blame for that. Maybe we didn’t make it clear enough, maybe they couldn’t hear me yelling from the sideline. We came out way too deep from the first whistle of the second [half].”
Compounding the danger of playing so deep was that the Red Bulls are, after all, mostly unfamiliar with each other. Dax McCarty is the one midfielder who was with RBNY at this time last year. Left back Roy Miller can say the same of his line. Even goalkeeper Luis Robles was a midseason arrival in 2012.
There’s a jelling process, and as McCarty said, it’s going to take time.
“That’s just honestly a case of a bunch of new players – guys just getting to know each other,” he explained. “You could see little glimpses, guys here and there, of what we were trying to do going forward.
“[Portland] were very sharp. And we unfortunately didn’t hold the ball well enough when we got into the attacking half.”
If there’s something to take inspiration from in this game from New York, it was probably the play of yet another set of new arrivals, forward Fabián Espíndola and central defender Jámison Olave. Espíndola had a pair of goals, and while Olave had an up-and-down night – he was posterized on Portland’s first goal, and tallied an unfortunate own goal – he was the one who put out most of the fires the Timbers started with relative ease.
Perhaps more importantly in the long run, both come from Real Salt Lake, who have made a science of using the ball to kill the game.
“In Real Salt Lake, they had a process [they started] a long time ago. Right now we are just starting that process,” Olave offered.
“RSL’s been together for, like, five years. They know how to handle the ball,” he said. “We have to learn to play together first, to keep it and kill the game.”
Figuring that out could end up being Job 1 for Petke. The Red Bulls have talent in spades, but a roster that’s not build to chase the ball. They’ll need to learn to keep it.