HARRISON, N.J. – A season of sputters and uneven performances perhaps got a kickstart Wednesday night for the New York Red Bulls as they gutted out a win on penalty kicks over the Philadelphia Union in the US Open Cup Round of 16. It’s a result that might give their season a spark, in large part due to an unorthodox formation that the team has never utilized before.
The Red Bulls have had some struggles this year, a departure from their generally consistent form over the past two years under head coach Jesse Marsch. The match against the Union saw the Red Bulls depart from their customary 4-2-3-1 formation, the favored alignment in what is now Marsch’s third year with the team.
Instead, they ran out something that on paper looked like a 3-6-1 — and pressed very well with it, even when they lost center back Aurelien Collin in the 23rd minute to an injury.
And in a season where the team’s vaunted press has struggled to gain traction as opponents have adjusted by playing faster out of the back and switching fields, the new formation helped the Red Bulls press higher up the field.
“Yeah, I mean, there's a few things with it,” Marsch said after the dramatic win. “We wanted to try and find a way to put more players on the field to be better on set pieces. You know, we think very highly of Sean Davis, and we don't feel like he's got enough opportunities to play. It was a way to get all four of our center midfielders on the field.”
“I thought first half it worked very well. I thought even beginning of the second half it worked very well. We didn't capitalize, which is a theme for this season, trying to figure out how to get more goals. Then, you know, fatigue and subs, guys going down, started to add up, then we had to hang on. Let's be honest, in the overtime, we had to hang on.”
It wasn’t perfect as the Red Bulls conceded a late goal to the Union in the 86th minute, but they controlled long stretches of the match. Once in the second half and again in overtime the Union hit the post, but despite an increase of possession and chances for the visitors, they couldn’t find the game winner.
Goalkeeper Ryan Meara, usually on the bench behind starter Luis Robles, saved the third penalty kick in the shootout, diving to his right to deny Fafa Picault, the Union’s most dangerous player on the night. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, made all five of their attempts from the spot, the last hammered home by midfielder Felipe to send New York to the quarterfinals — a glimmer of hope in a season of inconsistencies.
The Red Bulls came into the match off a disheartening 2-0 home loss on Saturday to New York City FC. Fielding seven starters from that game, the Red Bulls looked more fluid on the ball and even pressed better than four days earlier to get a win against a team that had knocked them out of the last two Open Cups.
“There’s good signs that we can change formation, can change things," Felipe said. "Certain things were very positive. We can build from tonight.”
“After the Open Cup game against [New York City FC], we talked about this being a kickstart,” midfielder Daniel Royer told MLSsoccer.com. “Every win you want to take as a kickstart. We’re going to try and take the positive to take it as a kickstart and hopefully take that into New England next week.
“I think sometimes it is a good thing when you have an ugly win. Even when you don’t play good, you can win."