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Bigsoccerhead: West Coast Omens for NYRB

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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

Superstitious fans might already be losing some sleep over the ominous start to the Red Bulls season.

Not only was New York’s return to the west coast frustrated by traveling woes, once again, but the team also repeated many of the mistakes that allowed the Portland Timbers to fight back from a two-goal deficit, last week.

After the game in Portland, Mike Petke conceded that an inability to maintain possession in the second half had cost the team three points. Petke also suggested that he had failed to effectively communicate his game plan to his players, who sat back in attempt to soak Timbers pressure.

Yet, as last night’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes revealed, it is one thing to spot problems, but quite another to fix them.

Having lined-up against Portland in defensive 4-2-3-1 formation, Petke reverted back to the more familiar 4-4-2  (a formation frequently used by his predecessor, Hans Backe), pushing Henry further up the field, where he tends to be more influential, and dropping Tim Cahill further back into the midfield, where he partnered up with Dax McCarty.

At first, the changes appeared to work. The middle of the field was less congested, allowing Cahill and McCarty to feed the ball to new signings, Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander, on the wings. It was Alexander who opened up the scoring by taking advantage of San Jose’s sluggish weak-side defending. Employing Steele and Alexander on the wings also provided Roy Miller and Brandon Barklage with more defensive cover, which was sorely lacking in Portland.

Nevertheless, like in Portland, the Red Bulls’ first half success was less a result of its own strategy than a consequence of the Quake’s own difficulties. Even though New York faced a San Jose team devastated by injuries, Petke’s team was never able to work up enough of a consistent passing rhythm, generating a game of broken plays, and visibly exhausting the players  – a reality that was spotlighted in the second half, once more.

With the Earthquakes chasing the game, the Red Bulls found themselves under constant pressure throughout the second half. Perhaps, expecting the home team’s push, Petke must have emphasized midfield marking, as Cahill and McCarty did a very good job of tracking runners. However, as Henry and Espindola tired, outlet passes were hard to come by, and New York was pinned back, unable to escape San Jose’s suffocating press.

Ultimately, the Red Bulls were undone by fatigue, botched marking assignments, and a complete lack of concentration. And unfortunately, it was the much-maligned Roy Miller who found himself smack in the middle of the team’s collapse. It was Miller who failed to mark Adam Jahn, as the forward met Sam Cronin’s cross, and it was he who gave away the penalty in the dying minutes of the game. More exasperatingly, though, the Costa Rican added insult to injury when his penalty box encroachment resulted in the retaking of the spot-kick, after Robles had parried Chris Wondolowki’s first attempt.

With five points dropped in the first two games of the season, Petke will want to quickly forget his team’s trips to the west coast. But with a visit from Eastern Conference rivals, DC United, looming, the Red Bulls’ totemic leader will have lots to remedy lest he begin hearing the first dissenting voices coming from the stands.

Player Ratings (1-10)

Robles (5): While Miller will take much of the blame for San Jose’s equalizer, Robles should have collected Cronin’s cross. Robles will also be criticized for his extra touches on the ball, though he was needlessly put under pressure on both occasions. Unlucky, not to have a penalty save under his belt.

Barklage (5): A shaky start to the game, especially when communicating with his defense. Settled down in the second half, contributing more offensively, but put Robles under pressure on a risky throw in, and was lucky not to get booked for a rash tackle on Corrales.

Olave (6): Safe for much of the game, and cancelled out Wondolowski when called upon to mark him. Even though his partnership with Pearce is improving, there are still some communication issues to work on.

Pearce (5): Not as steady as his partner, Pearce helped close down Wondolowski, but found himself tormented by Fucito, who missed a great chance to put San Jose ahead when he skied a five yard shot.

Miller (2): The Costa Rican will take the fall for the loss. His first half was solid, but two costly mistakes, one of them unforgivable, will haunt the left back.

Cahill (5): Very active in the first half, and playing in a deeper role than usual, the Australian was a constant threat during set-pieces. Tired out in the second half and ended up giving Cronin too much room to deliver his assist.

McCarty (6): Another very solid game for the midfielder. Had less freedom than Cahill to go up the field, but protected the back four very well. Suffered mostly from not having many passing options.

Alexander (5): Scored the opening goal, but played it too safe for most of the game. Could have put the game away in the second half, but shot wide, instead of passing.

Steele (5): Started the game nervously, misplacing a few passes and deferring too often to Henry, who tended to drift into his position. Seldom attacked, but gave Miller enough cover to push up the wing.

Espindola (4): Virtually non-existent in the first half. Dwelled on the ball for too long when he did have the ball at his feet in the first half. Held it up more efficiently in the second but never got enough support.

Henry (4): More active than in Portland, especially in the first half when he assisted Alexander. Played further up-front, but drifted constantly into the left midfield where he impeded Steele. Totally exhausted in the second half, he should have been subbed out.

Bover (2): Came in for Steele, and had twenty minutes to contribute, but hardly saw the ball.

Kimura (n/a): Came in to shore up the defense.

Moreno (n/a): Touched the ball once.