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Boehm: How the Red Bulls shed their identity at the worst possible moment

Identity: It’s one of the most celebrated, talked-about, fretted-over aspects of team play at the game’s highest reaches. Few concepts have more column inches dedicated to them by soccer journalists, and few teams attain their goals without a clear sense of who and what they are as a collective.

Perhaps no team in Major League Soccer has developed a clearer identity over the past few years than the New York Red Bulls, who have thrived since they instituted the up-tempo, high-pressing style longtime observers have dubbed “Ralfball” (a nod to Red Bull’s global tactical mastermind Ralf Rangnick) in 2015.

“This is an energy drink,” explained former head coach Jesse Marsch, as RBNY fans revolted when the club fired the popular Mike Petke and hired him that winter. “Moving forward, I think they want to honor playing a more dynamic and up-tempo game and incorporating more young players.”

The rest is MLS history. That menacing, relentless high press won the Red Bulls the 2018 Supporters’ Shield, their third in six years, and helped them break the league’s points record in the process. It’s made them consistently competitive amid front office and roster turnover. It’s their touchstone, a familiar foundation to hark back to when the going gets tough or complicated.

But in Atlanta on Sunday, it was simply nowhere to be found. And that 3-0 loss – their first to Atlanta United – probably spells doom for the Red Bulls’ MLS Cup hopes.

RBNY head coach Chris Armas was faced with a difficult decision when influential left back Kemar Lawrence was injured in training in the leadup to this game. The fierce, rangy Jamaican covers acres of ground from endline to endline and often patches up gashes in the Red Bulls back line with his engine and recovery speed. So Armas and his staff turned to veteran Homegrown midfielder Connor Lade, a trusted soldier but one who simply can’t do everything that “Taxi” does.

Coaches who encounter such setbacks before big occasions must balance two conflicting instincts: One is to to doggedly stick to their established patterns and identities; the other is to be nimble and clever and concoct a plan to fix the new problem with a new solution, and in the process perhaps unsettle the opposition with an unexpected wrinkle.

Armas & Co. seem to have decided that asking Lade to do even a vague impersonation of Lawrence was courting disaster against the Five Stripes’ fearsome attack. I’d guess that the nature of the home-and-home series format probably crept into their thinking, too – there’s a real tendency for teams in New York’s position to drift into a “let’s-be-cagey-and-keep-things-close-on-the-road” mindset, especially when you’re as dominant at home as they are.

So the Red Bulls tweaked their tactics, and got caught in philosophical no-man’s-land. They're a risk-taking team by nature, so much so that throttling back that sensibility is a huge risk in and of itself. 

This is not to say that RBNY haven’t adjusted their approach as circumstances required over the course of the season. After he took over from Marsch in midseason, Armas explicitly sought to add a few more clubs to the bag, particularly to give his team a wider range of options in the tense postseason situations that had so often undone the franchise in the past.

But to rein the dogs in this dramatically, in this high-stakes situation, against an adversary so eminently capable of exploiting any moment of weakness or indecision? That was a tweak too far, and the Red Bulls – who are admired, however grudgingly, around the league for who they are and how perennially difficult they are to play against – looked unsure of themselves in a way that we’ve rarely seen, and in the worst moment possible.

I’ll admit that I was shocked to watch several RBNY players – for whom breakneck speed is the default setting – jogging back towards their own penalty box as Tito Villalba scored that backbreaking third goal.

This series isn’t quite over yet. Lots of weird stuff has unfolded in the second leg of MLS playoff series over the decades, and if they can crank up the tempo to 11 on a frigid night at Red Bull Arena, the Supporters’ Shield winners can make it interesting.

But that’s a long, winding narrow route to victory, and a smart, motivated enemy is guarding the path.

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