The monkey is off Gerhard Struber’s back after he and the New York Red Bulls won their first game of the 2021, his first since taking the reigns as manager. The past two weeks have seen games escape from RBNY in the final 45, but Saturday at Red Bull Arena the second half demonstrated a complete effort at both ends of the pitch.
Caden Clark scored his second goal in three games while Cristian Cásseres Jr. scored what was the game winner just over 60 seconds into the second half.
What’s almost more important than the win was the feeling inside Red Bull Arena. There isn’t a confirmed number for the attendance as of this writing but from the press box I counted under 100 people in the South Ward supporter’s section (91~ give or take). The chanting, singing “Twist and Shout” after both goals, seeing the players salute the fans after the game, it felt like normalcy. People were happy and I truly believe that even if there were 50 people in those sections it felt just as loud as a normal game.
It goes to show that the fan atmosphere wasn’t just high two weeks ago because it was the home opener. Here in Week 3 and with RBNY coming in without a win to their name, the fans showed up and were excited.
Walking around the stadium in Harrison was surreal to be honest. RBA’s max capacity right now is about 3,750 (15% of 25,000) and eyeballing it would make it seem that was around the total attendance. While there are safety precautions in place for everyone in attendance, with different levels of access for the different groups (fans, media, staff, etc.), it was a nice divergence from the hard separation of people other venues have done these past few months. Media actually need to cut through fans in order to reach the press box now, so it was honestly a nice way to gauge how fans were feeling during the match.
Those feelings may have started out a bit damper but by the time fans left they were far more positive.
The first half between the two teams, both of which hadn’t won a game coming into Week 3, was at best chippy and at worst boring to watch. Both Chicago and New York and stretches where they controlled possession but neither were clinical in the final third. The Fire’s first real shot on target against Carlos Coronel took 17 minutes to develop, when Robert Berić found some space on the left side and shot right into the keepers arms from the top of the box. That kind of summarized CFFC’s offense overall since they only looked dangerous when they found space off breaks of rare defensive errors.
While errors in the back were rare, consistency wasn’t there early on for RBNY. The line of Kyle Duncan, Sean Nealis, Aaron Long, and Andrew Gutman helped keep the Fire to a handful of shorts on target. The first half looked shaky though; On one side Gutman was constantly getting picked off while the left side of Duncan and Nealis is where most of the potential Fire attacks formed. They got through it though, through their own efforts, the Fire’s lacking offense, and team captain Sean Davis playing as a defensive midfielder as part of a diamond formation.
This is after weeks of different names and formations with Struber not afraid to test the waters with players. Fans shouldn’t expect the same 4-5 to be the defensive faces next week against Toronto FC either. Struber said as much after the match to media explaining as a coach he needs to be flexible especially this early on. Though he seems to have found a favorite formation with a diamond in the midfield that usually consists of Clark and Davis is some form.
The second half was the best offensive the Red Bulls have played all season and the best I’ve seen them close out a game in a long time, maybe going back to 2019. Brazilian striker Fábio assisted on both goals and Clark’s was another banner, with the young midfielder jumping up to slap in the goal past goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. The previously physical Fire had trouble escaping the midfield and the team looked visibly deflated as the game continued to slip away (seen from my vantage point behind the team’s bench in the press box).
Struber really earned his first win (and the game ball). He didn’t panic or make irrational changes at halftime despite his group underperforming. Instead he stuck with it and immediacy things started working out. Now the question becomes will he continue to heavily shuffle the lineup for the match against Toronto or only make slight alterations?