Stejskal: Robust defense has New York feeling bullish ahead of stretch run

HANOVER, N.J. – Ask the New York Red Bulls what makes them different this season, what has them feeling like they can erase the memories of two-straight early playoff exits and make a deep run this fall, and most people around the team will point to one thing: An improved defense.

The Red Bulls were by no means bad in the back in either of the last two years, but the early-season acquisition of Tim Parker from the Vancouver Whitecaps and the continued upward trajectories of his center back partner Aaron Long, fullbacks Michael Amir Murillo and Kemar Lawrence and midfielders Tyler Adams and Sean Davis have transformed New York’s promising young back six into an elite unit.

“That backline, with the young crop of defenders and the sixes, there’s championships written all over that,” Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas told MLSsoccer.com last week.

Armas and his Supporters’ Shield-leading team have plenty of reason to be confident. After finishing eighth in MLS with 47 goals conceded last year and tying for seventh in the league with 44 goals allowed in 2016, the Red Bulls are on pace to give up just 35 this season. They lead the league in goals-against average and are tied for first with 11 shutouts. Though a rotated squad stumbled in a 3-0 loss at Montreal on Saturday, the Red Bulls’ pressing system has given opponents fits all year, with New York recording three shutouts and allowing just four goals in the six games prior to their defeat at the Impact.

Adams looks like a potential future captain of the US men’s national team; Long is in the discussion for MLS Defender of the Year; Murillo played in the World Cup for Panama and earned an MLS All-Star nod; Lawrence remains among the best left backs in MLS; Davis has taken a step forward in his second full season as a starter; goalkeeper Luis Robles is as solid as they come in net.

Those holdovers have all contributed greatly, but the March 2 trade for Parker is what’s really taken New York to a new level in the back. The 25-year-old, who, along with Adams and Long, is with the USMNT for Friday’s friendly against Brazil (7:30 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, UDN) and Tuesday’s exhibition against Mexico (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, UniMás, UDN), has rounded out the Red Bulls’ defensive group.

“I think Tim really helps complete that backline,” Davis told MLSsoccer.com. “We’re a team-first group for sure and we like to give credit to the entire team for defensive performances, but the truth is Tim has come in and helped complete a really strong backline.”

Parker’s addition gave the Red Bulls almost assuredly the most athletic backline in the league. The recovery speed, aerial strength and aggressive bent of Parker, Long, Lawrence and Murillo, Davis’ ability to cover ground and Adams’ otherworldly capacity to chew up turf are necessary for New York to get the best possible results out of their high-pressing system.

Where other teams might focus on how to best keep their shape and not allow space behind their defenders, New York are drilled on where and how to swarm the ball. When their press is working, they don’t allow opponents space or time, quickly turn them over and then transition into the attack. At its best, the system makes New York greater than the sum of their parts.

It does, however, carry significant risk. While the Red Bulls are conscious of staying under control when pressing, their aggressive tactics regularly leave individual defenders on an island. It’s in those situations when their athleticism becomes so important.

Consider an otherwise innocuous moment early in their 1-0 win against Houston last Wednesday. New York had pushed forward into the attack, with their entire backline positioned at or in front of the midfield line. The Dynamo lifted a clearance out of their own box, which Alberth Elis won on the right flank. One of the fastest and most dangerous players on the break in the entire league, Elis played a pass back and took off as midfielder Eric Bird led him with a long ball over the top. It looked like he’d run onto the ball and in on goal, but Parker, recognizing that Elis was onside when the pass was made, made a long run to chase the play down, beating Elis to the ball and blocking it off to eliminate any potential danger.

Adams, Davis, Lawrence and Murillo have made similar plays this season, but Parker and Long have been asked to make that type of recovery run more regularly than their teammates. Adams might be the man who makes the Red Bulls go, but it’s the athleticism and instincts of Parker and Long that really allow him, Davis, Lawrence and Murillo the freedom to take chances in the attack and while pressing.

“If we could take any two center backs in the league, if you’ve got them all lined up and you’ve got 20 seconds to pick two, I think it’s ending right there. Seriously,” said Armas. “I think it’s a big statement when you talk about the guys in the league like Kansas City’s back two, every team has got one at least one where you’d say, ‘Hmm, I don’t know.’ But those two guys, they’re so honest, they’re durable, they work together, they’re team guys, they run for the team, they just put out so many fires.”

While Adams appears to be headed to Bundesliga club RB Leipzig after the season, New York could conceivably keep the rest of their back-six together for years to come. Davis, Lawrence, Long and Parker are all 25, while Murillo is only 22. They’re incredibly cheap, as well, with the group of six combining to make just $948,621 this season, according to the MLS Players Association. That soon may change.

Parker is out of contract at the end of the season and, according to what sources told MLSsoccer.com at the time, was looking for a three-year, $1.8 million deal before he was traded to the Red Bulls. The Long Island native told MLSsoccer.com that he’s “happy with how everything’s going” with New York, but he didn’t elaborate on the status of any contract talks with the Red Bulls. Armas, who took over as head coach after Jesse Marsch moved to Leipzig earlier this summer and is only signed through the end of this year himself, was adamant that he’d like to keep Parker around going forward.

Regardless of what they look like next season, this group of Red Bulls agrees: Their improved defense makes this their best team since the club’s current system was installed in 2015. Whether that leads to the first MLS Cup in club history remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that New York are confident that they’ll be in contention for that elusive league title come December.

“100 percent, I think we’re a very complete team now,” said Davis. “Our staff said it earlier in the season, I forget the exact phrase, but they essentially said that this is the most complete team we’ve had. It has all the pieces we need to play the way we want to play. I think that we’ve demonstrated that through the first seven or eight months of this season within MLS play, in [Concacaf] Champions League.

“I think that we’ve shown that we have grown from past years and I think that a lot of that stems from having a really strong backline…. We’ve grown a lot this season and I think the team believes that we can really make a strong run at this.”

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