It didn’t take long for the hand-wringing to begin among Red Bulls fans on Sunday after Ricardo Salazar booked Jámison Olave a place in the luxury boxes at Red Bull Arena for the Eastern Conference Semifinals’ decisive leg against the Dynamo. Understandably so.
Anecdotally, Olave – a veritable freak whose physical gifts make him a universal mismatch in MLS – is New York’s best defender. He’s the rock around whom Mike Petke’s backline is built, a one-man wrecking crew, set-piece threat and an underrated, if sometimes erratic, distributor.
Statistically, his presence as a starter in central defense generally means the Red Bulls are picking up two points on the day – 51 of 81 available – and outscoring their opponent by nearly a full goal per game while facing a full shot fewer on target.
And without the Colombian in the first XI this season? Well, the picture isn’t quite so rosy, and that's not good news with the Dynamo eyeing the upset on Wednesday night (8 pm ET, Univ. Deportes).
As you can see below, New York’s points-per-game average drops by almost a full point without the Olave in the starting lineup They score half a goal fewer as well, despite the fact that possession remains relatively constant.
Now, can all of those discrepancies be attributed directly to Olave? Certainly not.
But there are two matches that Olave started that stand out for the contrast between the result as it stood with him on the field and off, making the comparison even more apt. The first came on April 17, when Olave left a scoreless match against Sporting KC in the 33rd minute, then watched as the visitors pulled out a 1-0 victory. The second came on June 1 at home against Vancouver, a game Olave exited in the 75th minute with the score tied at 1-1 only to see the point slip away in a 2-1 loss.
It is worth pointing out as well that the likely center-back pairing against Houston, Markus Holgersson and Ibrahim Sekagya, hasn’t exactly been the picture of consistency recently in Olave’s stead.
In three appearances together in the heart of the backline – at Chivas USA (3-2 loss), vs. D.C. United (2-1 win in which Sekagya saw red) and at Seattle (1-1 draw) – the only victory came against the league’s worst team, a game in which Olave actually played the final 14 minutes to help see out the match for his short-handed squad.
Then, in what New York hope is not a harbinger of things to come, Sekagya was fortunate to avoid a series-swinging penalty kick with the Swede beside him in the dying minutes of the first leg in Houston.
On a more positive note, the Red Bulls won both of the home games they played without the 32-year-old in the starting lineup, including that tight D.C. result in late August as well as a 4-1 beatdown of the New England Revolution back in April.
And with their playoff lives in the balance and Olave stuck eating hors d'oeuvre high above the field of play, New York better hope that trend holds for another 90 minutes.