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Bigsoccerhead: Red Flags in Timber Town

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PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 03: Jamison Olave #4, Thierry Henry #14 and Tim Cahill #17 of New York Red Bulls celebrate a goal during the first half of the game against the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field on March 03, 2013 in Portland, Oregon
PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 03: Jamison Olave #4, Thierry Henry #14 and Tim Cahill #17 of New York Red Bulls celebrate a goal during the first half of the game against the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field on March 03, 2013 in Portland, Oregon

Season openers seldom serve as reliable season prognosticators; however, the Red Bulls’ thrilling opener in Portland offered some insight into Mike Petke’s tactical philosophy.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the game revealed some of the red flags the new coach will have to work on if the Red Bulls are to make a serious run at their first MLS Cup.

The Red Bulls lined-up in a 4-2-3-1, which is not surprising considering they were playing away at a very hostile venue, as well as the fact that New York’s central midfield core will presumably be the engine that dictates the team’s fortunes, this season.

Dax McCarty, and Juninho Pernambuncano sat deep in the midfield, providing cover for the back four that consisted of (from right to left) Kosuke Kimura, Heath Pearce, Jamison Olave, and Roy Miller. Starting two defensive midfielders also allowed Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and newcomer, Ruben Bover, the freedom to interchange positions, and support Fabian Espindola, who functioned as the lone forward.

The strategy appeared to work well for much of the first half, as the Red Bulls’ attacking fluidity confused Portland’s defensive scheme. Espindola’s energetic runs were especially disconcerting. Just ask Portland’s Mikael Silvestre, who made an inauspicious start to his overpriced MLS career by gifting the Argentine with both his goals.

In fact, Portland’s defensive woes (highlighted by the former Arsenal defender) may have obscured some of New York’s own deficiencies, which were magnified in the second half. While the Red Bulls kept interchanging positions for much of the first half, their attack was never quite as fluid as many suggest. The high pressure applied by the Timbers prevented Miller and Kimura from supporting the wings effectively. This was clear on many occasions when Henry found himself on the ball, surrounded by numerous defenders, and without an outlet pass. The same is true for McCarthy and Juninho, who were pinned back by the Timber press, and unable to develop a consistent passing rhythm, as a result.

It was in the second half that the Red Bulls were truly exposed. Possibly the consequence of a long, and eventful trip west, many of the players became visibly exhausted, and incapable of withstanding Portland’s persistent attacks. With nothing to lose, Caleb Porter allowed Diego Valeri and Will Johnson more freedom to push up the field, and assigned a more defensive role to Diego Chara, who all but nullified Cahill’s influence on the game. Valeri became instrumental to Portland’s comeback. It allowed Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan to spread New York’s defense, leaving the team vulnerable in the middle, and allowing Ryan Johnson more time to make decisions on the ball (you needn’t look any further than his bicycle kick).

Porter’s tactical changes also accentuated the fact that Juninho never adjusted to the speed of the game. It was his inability to track Valeri that allowed the second goal to happen. With Valeri charging toward them, Pearce and Olave had to push up, leaving enough space for Nagbe to tap in a rebound. 

Portland’s dominance prompted Petke to make changes, but his substitutions and formation change weren’t enough to mitigate the barrage his team was facing. Bover made way for Jonny Steele, and Brandon Barklage replaced Espinosa who was drained by his first half efforts. The introductions of Steele and Barklage pushed Cahill and Henry further forward, but neither of the DP’s was able to make an impact.

As expected, Petke took responsibility for the dropped points, stating: “we came out [of the half] with the mindset that we needed to save instead of keep doing what we were doing in the first half.” The tactical decision to sit back and absorb the Timbers pressure was probably unavoidable given the New York’s inability to develop a passing game, but it certainly galvanized Porter’s men, who couldn’t help but be encouraged by their opponent’s timorousness, and consequent organizational collapse.

Ultimately, the Timbers game will serve as a reminder that big name players don’t assure wins, and that Petke has a lot of work to do in order to have his team playing cohesively, and at the rhythm demanded by the league.

Standout Player: Dax McCarty

Touted by many as the team’s key member, this season, McCarty lived up to his reputation as a gritty midfielder. Relentless in his defensive duties, particularly when Juninho failed to track back, McCarty prevented what could have been Portland’s winning goal. The only real smudge on his performance was his inability to provide offensive support.

Honorable Mention: Fabian Espindola

The Argentine had a very good debut. His goals evidenced his ability as a poacher, and his work rate will surely be an example to follow. Expect Espindola to be among the league leaders in goals this season.

Biggest Flop: Juninho Pernambucano

This was only one game, but Juninho’s performance left a lot to be desired. Neither defensively sound, nor offensively productive, the Brazilian was clearly off the pace, and even failed to deliver on his trademark set pieces