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New York Red Bulls still falling short of last season’s success

These days, the Red Bulls are losing the sorts of games they used to win last season.

HANOVER, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls haven’t looked quite like the powerhouse team of last year, but on Wednesday night they seemed on their way to an ugly three points at Red Bull Arena. 

But two unanswered goals from the Montreal Impact spoiled the proceedings. Impact manager Remi Garde celebrating a goal, much less the win, in Harrison was an unusual sight — his team had not won a regular-season road match against New York since entering the league in 2012. But no Ignacio Piatti, no problem for Montreal, which won 2-1. Merci ensuite (translation: thank you, next)

Here are three takeaways from the Red Bulls’ stunning loss at home:

Peculiar struggle in tight games continues

The Red Bulls had the league’s best defense last season – conceding less than a goal a game – and spent considerable targeted allocation money to secure the tandem of Tim Parker and Aaron Long. Logic suggests New York would be suited for tight games with low shot totals.

But a one-goal escape against FC Cincinnati, which  included two Cincinnati shots off the post and one off the crossbar, is the Red Bulls’ only win this season in six matches where the combined shot total is below 25. 

The Red Bulls losses this season are as follows: 1-0 to Orlando, 1-0 to Chicago, 2-1 to Minnesota, 1-0 to New England and 2-1 to Montreal. Worryingly, these are the types of matches they won last season.

Their other wins: 4-1 against San Jose and 3-2 against the LA Galaxy. 

“The one that we recently win with LA, … it was low-scoring for a while and then we get a few in bunches,” Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas said. “And the San Jose game, same.

“So, I think it’s an interesting statistic but … when teams are sitting back on us, it’s hard to break them down. And we’re usually hard to break down.”

This is perhaps as much a condemnation of the fruitless offense as it is the glitching defense. New York’s leading scorers this season are Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl, with two goals each. Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (11 and nine goals, respectively) nearly have as many as the entire Red Bulls team combined (13 goals). 

At 34, Bradley Wright-Phillips has looked like a shadow of the heralded MLS striker that scored 15 goals in five consecutive seasons. A soft-tissue groin injury has sidelined him for three games, but his goal-scoring has been largely silenced since last fall – with one goal since Oct. 5.

The Red Bulls have to hope he can spark a stagnant offense, but when he returns is still an open question as the team prepares to fly to Dallas on Friday.

“He’s getting close, we’ve seen him hit some top speeds now,” Armas said. “We’ll make the right decision for him, to make sure it’s behind him. Today, we’ll make a decision whether we take him or not and use him in some role. 

“The pain level of what he was having wasn’t a huge issue, it was like, let’s do the right thing with this soft tissue injury. So, we expected maybe a week, 10 days and then … those are always hard. We’re sometimes asked to put a timeline on it, we don’t give you the longest version of that.”

Still no concrete backline 

Part and parcel with the struggle to win tight games has been the Red Bulls’ rotation at the back, something motivated early in the season by Concacaf Champions League and injuries, but lately a side effect of inconsistent results.

Defenders had been basking in the spotlight over the three-match home-stand, from Connor Lade’s rocketed winner against FC Cincinnati April 27 to Amro Tarek’s cool finish against the LA Galaxy May 4. 

Aaron Long scored Wednesday, but also conceded a penalty before walking off with injury as the hopes of a perfect home-stand faded away along with the hopes of a good defensive performance.

For only the second time this season, New York started the same backline for consecutive games. That streak is unlikely to continue with Long’s injury and Michael Amir Murillo’s fresh legs. But, in a broader sense, back-to-back games of multiple goals conceded at home raises questions about the viability of a five-man backline.

“In this case, it made sense from a momentum standpoint, it made sense from a tactical standpoint, how to address Montreal,” Armas said. 

“The backline will have some fresh legs [this Saturday], and we can run back a few guys. We have to piece that together.”

Last chance for Kaku

Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra was unable to be a catalyst for change in his cameo on Wednesday, but the Red Bulls will need the embattled young Designated Player to rediscover his form of early last season, when he had 14 assists in his opening 18 matches. 

Since then, he has had two assists to go along with a ton of baggage, from kicking the ball into the crowd against Sporting KC to his continued cryptic posts on social media. His most recent strange post came on Instagram, a picture of the Red Bulls badge with a Latin song titled “False Promises.”

“Things that get posted … it’s hard to know exactly what context things are meant,” Armas said. “What I can tell you is, he’s so well-respected from the players and the staff. We get to see every day what he puts in and what his commitment level is.

“We see a guy that gives everything and, we don’t think or talk too much about his future, because his future is with us.”

If that statement is to stand the test of a summer transfer window, Gamarra will need to display a new demeanor, and equally, execute as he did at this stage last year.

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