Thierry Henry stands at center-pitch with match officials, New York Red Bulls' captain Aaron Long, & FC Barcelona's Sergio Busquets ahead of the two team's friendly match at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, July 30 (Credit: New York Red Bulls)
Thierry Henry stands at center-pitch with match officials, New York Red Bulls’ captain Aaron Long, & FC Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets ahead of the two team’s friendly match at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, July 30 (Credit: New York Red Bulls)

Saturday was not a normal game by any means at Red Bull Arena. A sold out crowd was mostly cheering as the visiting team came out on top. But overall, seeing the New York Red Bulls battle La Liga giant FC Barcelona to a 2-0 loss had more positives than one might realize.

Coming off the worst performance of Gerhard Struber’s career on Wednesday, tension was high. Losing 5-1 in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals to Orlando City SC did not mean the coach was in the hot seat. However, analysis of his managing style was becoming commonplace among vocal portions of the fanbase. Instead of having a league game to bounce back with the team instead had to deal with a mid-season friendly against a world superpower.

All while the league game against Colorado looms on Tuesday night after being rescheduled. In truth, Saturday felt more spectacle than soccer at times. The pregame appearance of Barcelona and Red Bulls’ legend Thierry Henry was a perfect example. Wearing a, truthfully disgusting, split kit of both teams the World Cup winner took part in the opening coin toss. Other celebrity appearances included Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who decided watching RBNY was more thrilling than WWE’s SummerSlam.

I’ll take that as a win.

With his third game in seven days Struber elected to start the match with an MLS caliber eleven. That includes Carlos Coronel in net, Lewis Morgan, and forward Patryk Klimala. On the other side Barcelona did the same. National team level forwards Ousmane Dembélé and Robert Lewandowski took the field to start. The sight of Lewandowski, a Polish national team legend, and Klimala, someone looking to make his debut for the senior national team, facing off as dueling forwards was somewhere between iconic and unbelievable considering the circumstances.

The two teams have faced each other two previous times. The two games at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford were both larger affairs with higher score lines. A then MLS record attendance of 79,002 saw both Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi score in a 4-1 Barca win in 2006. Two years later, the visitors crushed New York 6-2 in front of nearly 40,000 people.

Without question the crowd, as expected, was majority Barca leaning on Saturday. It’s no surprise considering many members of the RBNY fanbase sold their tickets ahead of this game. Prices ranged between $300 at the low end to upwards of $1000+ in certain sections. Red Members, who got their seats included with their package, were a rare sight in the RBA concourse. The South Ward supporter’s section was filled with very little Bull merch. An odd sight considering the section’s normal rules about wearing other team’s colors.

When asked after the match about the stadium’s atmosphere mostly supporting the visitors, Struber took an uncharacteristically jovial response, opening with “You think?”. The smile on his face remained after the laughter quieted down in the press room.

“We spoke about that. The atmosphere is a little different than when we play at home. But the energy was in the stadium. I think it was also in our direction. The supporters realize how difficult it is (to play) against us.”

He continued on by saying he hoped some of the opposing fans took something away from watching his boys. A sold out stadium like that is something he thinks can have a major effect on a team. Struber hopes some of those Barcelona fans return to a future MLS game, possibly this season, after seeing his group do well against their side.

Without question New York’s standout of the match was goalkeeper Carlos Coronel, who played the entire first half. As the Bulls’ defensive line held up well against Barcelona, the Brazilian stood out nearly every time he was called into action.

Following a high shot from the center spot by Dembélé in the 15th minute to start their offense, Barca continued to attack. Finding success up the left side through Raphinha, a series of passes found defender Eric García about 25 yards out on the left side. He crossed into the box towards an open Lewandowski who headed the ball over Coronel’s head but out of play.

Coronel had tracked the ball well enough and was in place to either make the save or see the ball go out of play.

In the 20th minute, Lewandowski broke past four RBNY players up the right side of the box. Under pressure, he struck a right footed shot that went over the crossbar again. The MSG camera caught his huge smile as he seemed inch closer to goal. But it wouldn’t come thanks to Coronel.

In the 24th minute Dembélé followed the same path up the right side with less resistance but an eager Aaron Long attempted to box him out. The Frenchman lost control of the ball but it was quickly picked up and passed back to him by Frenkie de Jong. Dembélé passed to the left to an open Lewandowski who only had Coronel to beat. His low shot was stopped by the keeper’s extended left leg before the ball went back into play.

The crowd erupted into a rare “Let’s Go Red Bulls” chant after that. If Coronel needs any sort of resume booster who can take solace in the fact that for a moment 10,000 plus Barcelona fans chanted against their team because of his actions. Coming only a few weeks after not being selected for the MLS All-Star game, Struber wasn’t surprised about his keeper’s performance.

“For me, of course, he is the best keeper (in the league). I think he is so stable in his performances,” Struber said when asked about Coronel by NYCSN. Of course everyone can see how he can catch balls or save moments for us, and save points. When you have (such) a young group on the field and you have a goalkeeper with his ability, how he affects with his power the whole backline… The whole effect he has on points, on development, on the bigger group is massive.”

Overall the New York backline was the standout performance of the day. Barcelona was always going to be the better offensive side. Players up top like Klimala, Cameron Harper, and Lewis Morgan rarely had time to get offensive chances against the A-team in the first half.

Long, Sean Nealis, and the debuting Andres Reyes held somewhat strong. The latter was making his first appearance with the first team after months of rehab following a leg injury. He was tested greatly battling what felt like a bulldozer force of Gavi and Raphinha.

The dam finally gave way in the 40th minute after another build-up from the left side. Tracking in with the ball from the side, Dembélé crossed into centerfield at the top of the box. He passed off to Raphinha on the right, who passed into the box’s right side to seemingly no-one. However, Dembélé’s speed carried him to the ball where he charged to the right corner of the goal area. He struck the ball with his right foot and caught Coronel on his right side, finding the back of the net’s left side.

After the break, both teams made substantial substitutions with players like Ryan Meara coming into net. Besides him the field was far younger with Caden Clark, Daniel Edelman, Omir Fernandez, and more coming on. After the match Struber went over just how important it was to get his younger boys time against Barcelona.

“I think of course every game at that time young players get game time on this level is a big win and in the end is a big chance to grow,” he said. “Today the boys see, also, when our system is also not so easy for them.

“I think when you have the reality live on the field with players against that, of course you can grow, and every minute is a big win for every single player, and I think for players in the USL.”

Players like Hassan Ndam, O’Vonte Mullings, and Curtis Ofori have regularly played with RBNY II in the USL Championship this season. In fact the only RBNY sub to not see the field is reserve team regular keeper Anthony “AJ” Marcucci.

If Coronel was the star of the first half, Omir Fernandez took second half honors. The Bronx, NY native had multiple offensive breaks into the Barca box. Both Marc-André ter Stegen and substitute keeper Iñaki Peña had to keep on their toes as the midfielder played around the defensive line. An early attempt five minutes into the half saw Fernandez nearly get a clean look on goal from the top of the box before a defender blocked the shot. Then in the 65th minute another chance saw him battling Nicolas Gonzalez in the box. The midfielder nearly got around him but wasn’t able to either get a shot off or find someone to pass off to.

At the other end the defense looked sound, especially considering the pieces in play. The biggest moment came when Daniel Edelman went studs up on a tackle in front of the RBNY bench against Pablo Torre. A straight red card in the 82nd ended the New Jersey native’s night as boos rained down. Meara looked okay but nothing like Coronel. A few nice saves were undermined by the game’s last goal. This included a 78th minute diving stop to save an own-goal following an errant deflection by Mullings.

The final goal came in the 87th minute with New York down a man. A long kick by Miralem Pjanic headed towards the box. Meara came out to grab it while Dylan Nealis tried to box out Barcelona forward Memphis Depay. In miscommunication, Meara and Nealis failed to get the ball and Depay got around the defender. The loose ball was tucked into the empty net to make it 2-0.

Overall, what is there to take away from this game? A league game on Tuesday against Colorado Rapids will serve as the team’s real chance to get back into a positive groove. Last weekend’s win against Austin served as a positive in the standings. After the Orlando loss on Wednesday another win is going to be needed quickly. However despite Saturday’s result multiple members of the New York roster stood out well. Not so much the offense but midfield, defense, and both keepers put on a display against FC Barcelona.

Coronel is only in his mid-twenties and a game like Saturday could be a resume booster for his career. Whether that’s with New York or elsewhere remains to be seen.

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