The New York Red Bulls’ season feels like it’s over with two more months to go. But after Saturday’s loss to the Chicago Fire the reality is setting in more.
For the first time since 2009, Harrison will probably not have a team in the postseason.

Saturday’s match against the Chicago Fire was not a wake-up call. Heck calling it a reminder feels faulty as well. In truth the game at Red Bull Arena was a normality.

The Fire were simply taking their rightful place in the standings and jumping New York for the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference.

If you didn’t know by now this road win is an enigma in one way though.

The last time the Chicago Fire won a match on the road was October 6, 2019, against Orlando City, SC.

“Obviously, it feels really good to have an (away) win,” Fire head coach Raphael Wicky told the press after the game. “One-and-a-half years almost, or so many games, is a long time.”

While it’s hard to call this a low-point the loss does make a nice addition to awful landmarks the team has accomplished. But once again, this season, it wasn’t as if New York was the worst team on the field.

Minus a handful of games this year, the team has been competitive and only lost by one goal.

In the same press scrum Wicky even admitted that his Fire squad did not look that great in Harrison.

“We (have) had, for sure, prettier games on the road. We (have) had, for sure, games where we played much better football, where we created way more chances.”

Photo: New York Red Bulls

He isn’t wrong. New York doubled his team in terms of total shots (20 to 9). However, where the Fire worked was that they made shots count. The visitors had double the shots on target than RBNY (4 vs 2) and that doesn’t count the two attempts that bounced off woodwork.

What Red Bull was able to do well was work the midfield. The patterns, possession, and chemistry between Sean Nealis, Andrew Gutman, and John Tolkin gave credence to the 4-2-3-1 game manager Gerhard Struber was trying. While Gutman may be the best choice for the back left Tolkin’s ability to charge up and play attacking defense couldn’t be ignored. So leaning into that, along with solid performances to start from players like Sean Davis and, to a lesser extent, Caden Clark made sense.

The problem came from offense and the lack of finishing from both the starters and eventual relief subs. Fábio and Patryk Klimala both combined for five shots, and none were on target. Second-half sub-Daniel Royer nearly equalized in the 65th minute when a Fábio found in right in front of an open net. However, he muffed the reception, and the ball trickled out for a goal kick.

Despite Chicago’s lone goal in the first half looking fluky, and initially being called offside, that score by Robert Berić actually went in the net. That’s more than anything the Red Bulls have been able to accomplish this year consistently.

The 2021 New York Red Bulls have a higher salary than any squad since 2018. But instead of a team that can win a Supporters Shield, even under Chris Armas, the group in place lacks depth and quality.

Struber’s group relies on trying to win rebounds, catch offenses off guard, and be quick on loose chances, but there is no plan B when that fails.

The long ball is nothing special, with neither Fábio nor Klimala ever scoring off a break like this. Not to forget, the midfield is more designed for long-term passing, not shots up the midfield. When it comes to set-pieces as well New York lacks behind most of the league too.

This is exactly what happened against Chicago. While New York was the better team for most of the match they failed to adapt.

The choice for offense was either trying to pass around and get it, which the team failed to capitalize in the final third, or take long shots.

“I think maybe sometimes the players, they are surprised that they have a chance,” Struber told the media after the match via ZOOM conference. “Sometimes they seemed stressed and they must know that sometimes they can take another pass to find the right chance, and I think right now we missed that.”

“I think on the goal it is again something you saw when we played there away. It’s a set-piece moment where we’re not ready and are maybe caught by surprise.”

The international break is a good time for the team to regroup and decide how it wants to finish out this season. The next match is on September 11 against D.C. United could see Struber deploy a similar XI with a new formation, or he could be willing to give more to finish Cameron Harper or Mandela Egbo.

Since no members of the team were called away for international duty there will be plenty of chances to fully explore what each member can do in the short term.

It’s also a good chance for the fans to regroup and decide what’s best for them going forward.

Do they believe the team is going to get better either in the final stretch? Do they believe 2022 will be a different animal with loans ending and Clark leaving for Europe?

Time will tell on that front, but for 2021 it’s running out and it feels like the last few specks of sand are trickling down the hourglass.

Featured Image: New York Red Bulls
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