A long time ago (Saturday) in a galaxy far far away (Harrison), the New York Red Bulls battled the Portland Timbers to a 1-1 draw. While New York is still winless at home the overall mood at Red Bull Arena was positive. The combination of Star Wars night, a premium promotional giveaway, and a come-from behind win against last season’s MLS Cup Finalists meant this draw felt pretty good overall.
That doesn’t mean everyone is happy with the result. Head coach Gerhard Struber told the media after the game that he honestly felt a little sad. Not just for his team but for the home fans hoping to see the first home win of 2022.
“This is a process. I know this is not always easy for the fans to realize that,” Struber said in the Zoom press conference. “You can drive home with one point, and I have a big understanding for our fans; that they are not happy today with one point and I also am not happy. But the group is young. We have to help the group. We have to push the group in a direction that they can win at home, and I know the process is not always easy, but we go this way with this young group and we have a big trust with very, very soon in a direction that our fans are happy and can celebrate after our home games.”
It has to be said that the arena itself felt electric for the entire match. Despite the cold, rainy weather the team announced a total attendance of 17,107. It didn’t even feel like there was much padding when it came to that number since the entire upper deck across midfield was sold through. That’s probably a testament to how many single game tickets were sold just for the Star Wars night promotion.
When the team is averaging about 15k per game, with that number being “announced” and not always believable, this sort of atmosphere sticks out a lot.
For the first time this season an organic “Let’s Go Red Bulls” chant came out of the crowd multiple times. It’s small, but when the chanting isn’t just coming from the South Ward Supporter’s Section it means something. Even when the team went down thanks to Jaroslaw Niezgoda’s goal in the 53rd minute, boos didn’t come down. At least nothing as loud compared to the Montreal or Dallas matches last month.
On the field, the Red Bulls faced their toughest opponent at home so far this season. The Timbers’ 4-2-3-1 formation overwhelmed the home side for most of the first half. Players like Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Marvin Loría helped the visitors control possession and tempo. They generated more convincing chances on offense than anyone else had done in Harrison in 2022. Portland’s recent issues actually scoring goals is the only reason why this wasn’t a two goal lead (or more). A few missed kicks or excellent defensive stops are the reason why this game got to halftime scorelss.
“From the first half, I don’t feel like we came out sharp enough, fast enough and we didn’t stick to our identity,” Defender Tom Edwards said. “I feel like in the second half we improved a lot.”
Some other examples of dull play came out of the man of the day John Tolkin. The man whose Star Wars themed bobblehead was the main attraction bringing people in had a dull match. A few times in the first half, he and his teammates failed to take chances on multiple shots. A long pass to the defender in the 26th minute saw Tolkin pass into the box to no one instead of shooting directly at David Bingham in net.
Struber explained afterwards that it comes down to experience to break other team’s rhythms.
“I think this was in the first half sometimes the issue that we need too much and too long time to bring the ball in dangerous areas in the golden zone. Yeah, I think this is still the learning curve or learning from today what we have to improve.”
Some of the second half improvements included a shocking substitute. With Patryk Klimala out due to a positive COVID test, Tom Barlow lined up as the main striker in the starting XI. For most of the game he looked like he lacked speed. At times Lewis Morgan would beat him on breaks past the Timbers’ line. However in the second half Struber elected to replace him with Red Bulls II callup Zachary Ryan. Ashley Fletcher remained on the bench for the whole game, raising some eyebrows which Struber addressed after the game.
“With Ashley Fletcher, we try everything in the last few days to bring him on a fitness and healthy situation on the game day. But he has a little bit muscle tightness and the risk to bring him today was too high. We know that we have in the next three weeks, five games more and we need him healthy and ready and this was the — this is the situation where I am bringing him not in today.”
The game started to move more in New York’s direction after the Portland goal and soon set-piece opportunities were piling up. It broke through in the 67th when Dylan Nealis knocked down a corner kick towards RBNY captain Aaron Long. The defender slammed in a shot past Bingham to tie the game at one each.
From that point on, the crowd really showed its true colors. Sure, it was loud right after the goal as expected. But with New York continuing to attack the emotions around the stadium were building. A team coming from behind will do that to a fanbase. But even when it didn’t come and the final whistle blew, the cold, wet supporters still cheered loudly.
That says something about a team that’s winless at home. Whether it be because of the result, the Tolkin bobblehead, or something else it doesn’t matter. Fans left the arena happy and for a team that’s in contention for the Supporter’s Shield, that means a lot.