HANOVER, N.J. — It’s largely the same personnel playing in the same formation.
Yet, the New York Red Bulls don’t quite look like the same team that conceded the fewest goals in MLS a year ago en route to winning a third Supporters’ Shield title in six years.
“I think it’s team tactics, team defending, just getting back to who we are, a lot of the mistakes we’re making right now are individual mistakes,” defender Aaron Long said after training Thursday. “But the more we can cut those out and defend as a team and defend as a unit and have a lot of guys around the ball and have each other’s backs is going to help us and that’s what we did a lot last year.”
Where to start with the Red Bulls’ issues this year? The beginning, of course.
A year ago, the Red Bulls scored the first goal 25 times, going 21-2-2 in those games.
This year, the opponent has taken the lead 11 times and the Red Bulls are 2-6-3 in those games.
“I think fast starts are something that is also part of our DNA. We like to get on top of teams early and score first,” Long said. “And I think that our record is very good when we score first and have fast starts. So it’s tuning into the game early, and it’s something that we’re talking about in our pregame huddles right now having good starts.”
Although the Red Bulls scored first Saturday, conceding just one minute later, they were on the back foot from the opening kickoff. And a slow start to the second half resulted in the first of two Pedro Santos goals in the first minute after the restart.
“Obviously, it’s something we’ve been trying to get on the guys about and it’s something that’s in that pregame huddle conversation,” defender Tim Parker said. “But for us, it’s one of those things that we have to force our game early so that we can get the guys around us going. Because it’s not the easiest thing, obviously to come out right away and be clicking right away. But I think we have to be able to force that.”
At BMO Field July 27, Toronto FC led after six minutes through Jozy Altidore and an Alejandro Pozuelo penalty kick doubled the hosts lead in the 26th minute. A moment of brilliance by Altidore and a pair of individual mistakes doomed the Red Bulls in that 3-1 defeat.
The individual mistakes are being made by a host of individuals.
“I think it’s those fine margins, those half-a-second plays where you take it off, and you’re not fully in tune to cover the guy next to you,” Parker said. “That’s kind of what we’ve been talking about a lot this year is don’t take any breaks, obviously, when other teams have the ball, because it seems like when we do we’re getting punished for it.”
“We just have to be more aggressive,” left back Kemar Lawrence said last week. “I feel like we just have to continue to trust each other and to improve on the little things that we normally do good. I feel like some fine detail somewhere in there are being missed and that’s causing the goals. Because if you see the goals, it’s always goals that could be prevented by a guy shifting a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right, I feel like we just have to err on the side of being a little bit more aggressive.”
In that loss to Toronto and the 3-2 home defeat to the Columbus Crew, the opponent bypassed lines and played long balls behind the Red Bulls defense in an attempt to stretch the backline. It’s a tact many opponent this year use to avoid the Red Bulls’ greatest strength — its high press.
Armas said dealing with those situations is something the team has worked on, both in the video room and on the training field.
But ultimately, Armas said, it’s about being aggressive and avoiding “mental breakdowns” that has led to conceding what he calls “strange goals.”
“I would say that in general we are at our best when we stick to who we are. And there’s a lot that goes into that, because it’s a high demand,” Armas said. “But we’ve talked a lot about that lately. And we know that we’ve seen that show up, but we know it has to be probably an all the time thing — from everyone, at all moments, not letting it slip. Because when it does, we’re vulnerable.”