CHESTER, Pa. – Luis Robles doesn’t remember the last time he posted a clean sheet.
It actually hasn’t been that long, but it probably seems that way to him because of the New York Red Bulls’ consistently subpar defensive performances.
The Red Bulls saw their five-game unbeaten streak snapped on Wednesday night, falling prey to their all-too-familiar habit of conceding early in a 3-1 loss to a Philadelphia Union team that had not won at PPL Park since March 15.
The opening tally came in the ninth minute, as crafty veteran striker Conor Casey beat young center back Matt Miazga far too easily. The goal marked the eighth time this year that the Red Bulls have conceded within the first 12 minutes of a match, an alarming trend that should have been weeded out of New York’s game a long time ago – but that is still mind-blowingly present at the midway point of the season.
“It can’t keep happening every week," said midfielder Tim Cahill, "because it just means we have to score four goals to win every game [or] two, three just to get a draw.”
Added Robles: “It’s a trend that we have to find a solution to, giving up early goals. But the worst part about the early goals that we’re giving up is just our own mistakes.”
It would be far too easy for players to lay blame on the individual mistakes like that of Miazga, the 18-year-old defender who endured the roughest game of his pro career on Wednesday. But the Red Bulls know that as a whole they are not defending as well as they should in order to help out a back line that is currently comprised of three youngsters with little pro experience.
That's why New York last posted a shutout on June 8, why they only have three in total this season and why they are currently the fourth-worst team in terms of goals allowed in 2014.
“It just seems like last year there was a certain toughness that we’ve just got to find,” said Robles. “I just think the worst thing we can do right now, especially since we’ve got a quick turnaround, is to point fingers. But I think everyone knows that collectively, everyone can do a little better defensively.”
The only other thing as consistent as New York’s early defensive woes is the recent play of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry, who once again combined to create New York’s lone tally against the Union.
Wright-Phillips now has a league-leading 16 goals on the year, while Henry has a season-best 11 assists.
Many of their performances are going to waste, however, as the club’s defensive displays have simply not been good enough throughout the season – regardless of which combination of veteran players and youngsters has been used across the back four. The loss in Philadelphia was the latest example of that, as a Union side that New York felt it could beat came out on top by two goals.
“Out of all the Philly teams we’ve faced, I feel like this is the most vulnerable team that we faced, the team most ripe to take points [from],” said head coach Mike Petke before talking about what unraveled his team. “Individual defending mistake on the first goal, two individual mistakes on the second and the penalty kick.”
The Red Bulls will not have much time to try and resolve this dilemma in training, as a home game against the San Jose Earthquakes is on the schedule for Saturday (7 pm ET, MLS LIVE). New York will need to bounce back with a stronger defensive outing and pick up three points, or else they will risk falling out of their playoff place in the Eastern Conference.
“This is the part of the season where you start getting some separation or things continue to get tighter,” said Robles. “We had a big opportunity to move ahead a few points, and we missed out on it.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.