HARRISON, N.J. – Whether it is a lack of concentration, effort or something else, something is clearly not right with the New York Red Bulls defensively.
Forced to settle for a frustrating and disappointing 1-1 draw at home with the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, the Red Bulls were once again left reflecting on how they can improve from a defensive standpoint this deep into the season.
There were no clear answers offered by anyone in the squad, but New York made it known that their defensive performances are just not cutting it right now.
Conceding one goal to an Earthquakes team that boasts one of MLS's best strikers in Chris Wondolowski is no crime. But the fact that the Red Bulls – a team that prided itself on its defense last year – have only three shutouts this deep into the season has left the club extremely concerned.
“There’s something askew, I guess you could say, compared to last year,” said Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke after watching Steven Lenhart score an 85th-minute equalizer after the home team repeatedly failed to consolidate their 1-0 lead. “Last year, we were a good, solid team that shut teams down when we were up, that worked until the very end and it’s a little bit different this year. We’re going to try and pinpoint it.
“Perhaps [it’s because] we’re a year older, perhaps making the conscious decision not to change the roster because of the success we had last year – maybe we should’ve made a couple more changes. There’s a lot of things we could say we should’ve [done]. It’s about finding what’s going on and trying to fix it like we try to do every day.”
Theories are plentiful amongst the Red Bulls' most adamant supporters, but one that will likely be talked about at length after this match is fatigue. New York were admittedly tired in their midweek loss to the Philadelphia Union – a game that marked the second of three in an eight-day span – but only one change was made to the lineup that faced the Earthquakes on Saturday night.
That left some New York fans confused and frustrated and what compounded matters is that Petke only made one substitution against San Jose, reintroducing Peguy Luyindula after the midfielder had been absent the last few weeks because of toe injuries.
Petke was on the cusp of inserting Michael Bustamante into the match, but Lenhart struck just as the young holding midfielder was putting his jersey on. That changed the second-year head coach’s plans completely, and he opted to stick with the players that had done a good job of creating chances throughout the first 85 minutes.
“Because the game didn’t call for a sub with the players that we had on the bench tonight,” said Petke when asked why he made just one substitution. “At the end of the day, it’s not that I don’t want to make a sub … but at the end of the day if it doesn’t feel like it’s going to make an impact and the way the game’s going, I’m just not going to make a sub.”
New York are headed for what looks to be a much-needed break from MLS play, but will not have the luxury of resting their players as a rare international friendly with English Premiership club Arsenal looms large. That match will likely require most of the Red Bulls' starters to play at least 45 minutes, but ultimately it will not be a valid excuse if the Red Bulls return to league play and their defensive shortcomings persist.
After all, it is not just this week that the team has faced these types of issues. It’s been all season long.
“We’ve got 14 games left. We have to have the mindset of fixing our mistakes,” said goalkeeper Luis Robles. “If we don’t fix our mistakes, then we can kiss the playoffs goodbye.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.