HARRISON, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls threw everything at D.C. United in a one-sided second half Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, but the match was kept scoreless and the Red Bulls were sent packing, literally, for what could be an entire MLS playoffs away from home.
What a difference one year makes
At certain points in this late-season run, Derrick Etienne Jr.’s name has been brought up, and each mention is a reminder of how different the scene in Harrison is only 12 months on from a record-setting year.
In the Red Bulls’ final regular season home match last season, Etienne Jr. scored the lone goal on a brilliant run, clinching a record 71 points and Supporters’ Shield on Decision Day. It was a peak moment for the homegrown winger, and the three points earned set a new MLS standard.
This season, after a 0-0 stalemate in the regular season home finale, Bradley Wright-Phillips said tongue-in-cheek how he would ask Etienne Jr., now on loan at FC Cincinnati, to channel his best form against D.C. United next Sunday, to help the Red Bulls move up to fourth in the Eastern Conference and host a playoff game.
It was a light-hearted comment, but also a reminder of how far the mighty have fallen: Etienne Jr. away with the last place team in MLS and the former record-breakers forced to hope for a one home playoff game.
Early goal importance highlighted
It is a simple idea, but it bears reiteration and explanation. If the Red Bulls could have capitalized anytime in the first half on Sunday, when it was a more open match, D.C. United would have been forced to send numbers forward and leave themselves exposed in transition moments, what New York’s press is built for.
Instead, Ben Olsen took stock of the situation at halftime and elected to put nine players behind the ball in the second half. There were no transition moments. The Red Bulls went from having 48.5 percent of the ball in the first half to 58.2 percent in the second half. D.C. did not have a shot on goal all game.
Giving the Red Bulls’ track record over the years, it’s fair to wonder why more teams do not sit back from the start against them, but most with the attacking prowess of D.C. will choose against doing that for a full 90 minutes.
Being on the road in the playoffs could actually help New York in this regard, as teams may look to play more on the front foot than in Red Bull Arena. But postseason matches are usually more compressed than normal, and the further they linger, the tighter they will get.
If the Red Bulls are to win four straight playoff games and capture MLS Cup, they probably need an early goal in at least three of those four matches, or else the mountain to climb in the second half will be too much, as seen on Sunday.
Who will score the goals?
After a transient spell with the first team this season, Tom Barlow started at striker Sunday, in place of the injured Brian White and limited Wright-Phillips, and was part of a group that won two season-altering matches against Portland on Sept. 18 and Philadelphia on Sept. 22.
Barlow has had moments to celebrate this season, but is yet to prove he can be a game-to-game goal scoring option, with three goals in eight starts and 12 appearances. What’s even more worrisome is the fact, without Brian White, who has been unavailable since a high ankle sprain on Aug. 17, the Red Bulls don’t seem to have anyone of the sort.
Daniel Royer has a team-leading 11 goals, but only a single goal in open play since July 14. Josh Sims has come close since debuting on Aug. 24, but is still yet to score in four starts and six appearances. The aforementioned Wright-Phillips has two goals in nine starts and 23 appearances.
Given that context, it is no surprise Red Bulls coach Chris Armas still expects White, even if he does not return on Sunday in Montreal, to be an option in the playoffs.
He may have to be.