The New York Red Bulls are used to being contenders. The club’s active streak of consecutive playoff appearances stretches back a decade. They’ve taken part in three of the last four editions of Concacaf Champions League, and three Supporters’ Shields sit in the trophy case back home.
They will not be making a deep run at the MLS is Back Tournament. RBNY crashed out of the event with Wednesday night’s 2-0 loss to FC Cincinnati, their second straight underwhelming loss after kicking off their slate with a victory over Atlanta United, and a sobering failure to meet their own expectations.
“I sound like a broken record because I said this last time, but we have to take a hard look in the mirror and this has to hurt each and every one of us,” Red Bulls captain Sean Davis told reporters postgame. “It has to hurt us enough to change and just be better. We have to be better, and we have to start by holding each other accountable and taking responsibility.
“I said this to the guys in the locker room after the game: It's not good enough for a club like ours. The standards are high. We know what it takes to succeed at this club and what those standards are.”
As the Red Bulls and pretty much everyone else expected, FCC set up in a defensive posture for most of the match, just as they did in their previous upset of Atlanta. That approach was greatly aided by scoring first, Yuya Kubo pouncing on an error by Amro Tarek shortly before halftime to score his second MLS goal. Despite plenty of probing possession, RBNY failed to consistently threaten despite uncorking 19 shots overall.
“We knew what to expect on a night like this, and we didn't handle business. That's the reality of it,” said Davis. “So, really disappointing. It hurts a lot right now and we had real aspirations to make a run. We wanted to win this tournament. … We weren't sharp enough, we didn't find enough solutions against their block and then they create one or two chances and capitalize.”
After scoring less than four minutes into their opener against ATLUTD, the Red Bulls did not hit the net for the rest of the tournament. They played without a true target striker on Wednesday as Daniel Royer and Omir Fernandez were paired up top, and found little joy from a barrage of 51 crosses, all too many of them hopeful in nature.
“The guys again have a good start to the game, they’re on the front foot, and the goal doesn't come,” said head coach Chris Armas. “And then sometimes it's natural frustration, which we talk about, but it's not so easy all the time to stay with it, machine-like, to keep pushing and methodically go after it. So, we have to grow in that department.
“It's what you'll learn as players, and through experience,” he added when asked about the fruitless bonanza of deliveries from wide areas. “The next time you're in those moments, can you stay on the ball a little bit longer? The timing of your pass, seeking out the 2v1 advantage, how sharp can you be in those moments? The best teams in the world have a difficult time at times. You see Man City, they're the best at it, right? But it's not so easy when teams just sit in.”
So while Cincy and Columbus Crew SC advance to the knockout stages, incumbent powers RBNY and Atlanta head home to contemplate what’s eroded their status as Eastern Conference elites.
“Although Cincinnati didn't have a lot, they executed their game plan,” noted Davis. “This is obviously a new tournament for everyone, but we've been in situations like these before, whether that's Concacaf Champions League, Open Cups, similar situations. We have to be more mature as a team, understand what teams are throwing at us, being able to adjust and at the end of the day being so sharp, so alert that we can handle anything.”