Playing with as many as six starters out due to injury or suspension the past three weeks, a short-handed Red Bulls team has won three games in a row playing a brash, unapologetic brand of defensive soccer.
For a team that at one point last year was being proclaimed the “Barcelona of MLS” for its free-flowing, possession oriented game, it has been an abrupt departure in style. Injuries to key players such as star forward Thierry Henry, midfielder Teemu Tainio and three-fourths of the backline meant that head coach Hans Backe had to rely on his bench to step up and begin producing.
“I myself am quite impressed with these young guys with three clean sheets -- inexperienced guys working very hard to win this game,” Backe said.
“Of course you need a little bit of luck, but overall I must say I’m pretty pleased with the number of injuries we have and with these young guys coming in. We didn’t create that much attacking wise [in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Houston]; we had a lot of giveaways, unforced errors, no rhythm, but sometimes you just need to step up.”
Each game in the three-game winning streak have been by an identical 1-0 margin, a testament to the team’s commitment to keeping a tight shape defensively and playing what Backe calls “cynical” soccer. The back four plays it safe, perfectly content to send panicky clearances and direct long balls out of the back rather than try to build possession, as is New York’s preferred style of play.
The Red Bulls are finding success by playing as a unit and keeping the game simple. They stopped playing cute and are now delighting in getting ugly. It was the same style they used last year to squeak into the playoffs and defeat FC Dallas in the opening round. Inexplicably, the team got away from that this year and struggled with inconsistency to start the season.
“I think the main discussions we have with each other are just to make sure that we limit the mistakes. I think that’s been our Achilles’ heel the past couple of seasons is that we’ve made some mistakes that have led to goals,” midfielder Dax McCarty said.
“I think that during training we try to work as a group on making sure we shift and move together. I try to be a screen for the back four so that when the forwards drop deep they have a guy behind them and a guy in front of them with me.”
For a team built on star players and with one of the highest bankrolls in MLS, the Red Bulls have won three straight games utilizing less than glamorous names such as Brandon Barklage, Connor Lade and Tyler Ruthven during the recent injury crunch. Unheralded names are now making an impact in MLS as a team that didn’t have a single shutout this season as of late April now suddenly has three in as many games.
“We got to lose that title [of being unheralded]. We have the same questions every week -- that they can’t believe we’ve done it. But we have, we’ve done it,” Ruthven told Metro New York.
“It is cynical. It’s gross. We’re not impersonating Barcelona. We’re not playing beautiful stuff, but we’ve got a very limited squad right now. We’ve gotten nine points from these three games when most people expected we’d get zero. We’ve gotten nine points.”
Follow Red Bulls writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.