September 18, 2016
Like it or not, Red Bulls' season has been defined by a full-blown epidemic, their inability to close out matches
By Michael Lewis
Luis Robles: "We seem to be talking about this now too frequently."
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
No matter what they do, they just can't get over the hump.
The Red Bulls try to think positive thoughts and have a tough mentality. And that doesn't work.
They bring in a fifth defender. And that doesn't work.
Head coach Jesse Marsch even gestures on the sidelines to his players to embrace the moment. And that doesn't work.
Instead, they stumble and fumble away the lead, again and again and again.
Ah, make that a two-goal lead.
For the second time within a week and for an incredible fifth time this season, the Red Bulls left more points on the table in a confounding 3-3 deadlock with Toronto FC. It has cost them in the Eastern Conference table as they failed to take over the lead and clinch a playoff spot.
"It's frustrating because we give up the lead again," Marsch told reporters at BMO Field. "That part we are all disappointed."
Frustrating and disappointed are understatements to what has occurred in recent weeks. But then again what has transpired with the Red Bulls isn't the flu, it is a full-blown epidemic they can't cure.
In this latest collapse, they took a two-goal lead in the first half before Toronto, behind former New York standouts, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, slowly, but surely started to whittle the lead away. They retook a two-goal advantage but could not hold it.
And the sun also rises.
Again and again and again.
"They started throwing everything at us like we've seen at times," Marsch said. "You have two choices, to try and take pressure and see if you can defensively hold up or see if you can get another goal and put the game out of reach that way. Or do both at the same time. We had some chances to make it four, but it's just incredible because we shouldn't have to make it four, we should end 3-1 and been able to close the game out in a smart, competitive, tactical way out on top. We have shown weakness in these moments, it's hard because again we did so much in that game well."
This malady has defined the Red Bulls' season. Had they not given away the lead Sunday, they would be atop the Eastern Conference and not the Canadian club.
"We seem to be talking about this now too frequently," goalkeeper Luis Robles said. "We were good for 70 minutes up 3-1 until we added the fifth defender. When we played our game they had no answer for us, we created chances, put them constantly under pressure. When we changed tactically maybe our mindset wasn't right. In theory when we go five in the back we should have more control of things but every time the ball came we didn't look to play anymore, just kicked the ball out. In the final 10 minutes we were gassed, it was difficult."
You have to wonder if this inability to finish off opponents will wear down the Red Bulls mental strength as the playoffs near. They might make the postseason, but you have to question on how well they will fare and how far they will go.
When the Rochester Lancers of many, many years ago could not buy a road win over two seasons, I suggested in a column that the entire team see a hypnotist. As I recall it did not go over well with the coach, Don Popovic, who scoffed at the idea. So, I will not make that suggestion to Marsch, but something has to be done.
During Sunday's game, I playfully tweeted that I did find a way for the Red Bulls to stop the two-goal lead blues by waiting until the 90th minute to score the game-winner, which wouldn't give the opposition that much time to equalize or win. I referred to the Red Bulls' 1-0 dramatic triumph over Alianza in the CONCACAF Champions League Thursday night, when Sacha Kljestan tallied in the 90th.
That might have been funny at the time, but what is ailing the Red Bulls these days is no laughing matter.
Unless and until the Red Bulls can show they can protect a lead, a two-goal advantage of all things, the Red Bulls' season could very well be defined by that malady.
Worse, their season could be finished well before they want it to be, by their inability to close out games.