Red Bulls' tactical gambits fall flat against SKC's pressure

HARRISON, N.J. – The scene inside the locker room was a festive one. Music was blaring, players wearing navy blue NYPD hats were dancing and smiling. The joy they felt was impossible to miss.

That locker room and those players belonged to Sporting Kansas City, the first team to knock off the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena this season and the current alpha dogs in the Eastern Conference. Sporting KC took a 2-0 win on Wednesday night in a match that saw New York get off to yet another poor start, this time in part because of their lineup choices and tactics.


Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe deployed a 4-4-2 to start the match, with Tim Cahill partnering Thierry Henry up top, Teemu Tainio and Rafa Márquez playing centrally in the midfield and Dax McCarty next to them on the right. Backe’s plan was for that midfield trio to hold possession against a physical and athletic Sporting side, but that backfired as the three natural central midfielders were left chasing the ball in a first half that was largely dominated by the visitors.

“Of course I’m surprised,” Backe said of his team’s lackluster performance. “It’s a big game, fighting to be No. 1, so of course that we played so slow and couldn’t come out in our attacking game, everyone is disappointed.”

McCarty struggled playing out of position, showing unusual sloppiness with the ball and enduring arguably his worst performance of the season – Backe said he subbed McCarty off at halftime because the team ‘just needed to do something’ and any one of the midfielders could have been replaced – and Tainio’s passing was constantly off the mark due to his own poor decisions and Sporting KC’s unrelenting pressure.

The oft-criticized Márquez was actually the only one of the aforementioned trio that managed to match the intensity of Roger Espinoza, Júlio César, Paolo Nagamura and the rest of Sporting KC in the first half, before admittedly getting gassed and playing worse in the second. But even his performance in the opening 45 minutes was not enough to prevent SKC from taking a 2-0 lead going into halftime.

After the match, Backe shot down the notion that he trotted out a lineup that was too defensive minded, again stressing the need to keep the ball against the conference leaders.

OPTA Chalkboard: KC's pressure too much for sloppy Red Bulls

“When you play against teams like Kansas [City], you need possession,” he said. “You need to get players up front who can get hold of the ball, you need midfielders who can get hold of the ball to have more possession because if you get too hectic, they are one of the better teams when you talk about pressure on the ball and they force you to kick it and that’s not our game.”

That may not be the Red Bulls’ strength, but that’s what they settled for throughout the match, at least until Backe inserted Kenny Cooper, Lloyd Sam and Sébastian Le Toux. That trio helped give New York more possession and a more effective attacking punch, and the width that Sam provided in his home debut for the Red Bulls allowed for a number of half-chances that were missing in the opening 45 minutes.

“We changed the formation a little bit,” said Connor Lade. “We pushed the fullbacks a bit higher, we dropped Rafa a bit more deep so he could get on the ball and make things happen for us.

“Then just try to see if we can make something happen because what we did in the first half wasn’t working. Credit to them, they came in with their game plan and stuck to it and it was effective for them.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for He can be reached at

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