|Artist's Rendition of Red Bulls Practice Before Colorado Match|
On Sunday Red Bulls fans saw what they had been hoping for: an entirely different team. Without the red & white kit, you wouldn’t have known it was Red Bull out there because we saw everything that was missing the first two games of the season. It’s been pretty unanimous that Wilman Conde and Rafa Marquez were the keys to this transformation. Having KFC (that’s Kenny F’ing Cooper) up top with Henry also helped, but it was the tandem of Conde and Marquez that clearly made the difference. Let’s examine why.
Most obvious was Conde’s physical presence and leadership. Not only was he throwing his body around with no regard for his health (which can be a bit nerve-wracking if you know his medical history), but he was extremely vocal, keeping the back line disciplined and directing traffic. From the top of 133 it was amazing to see how well the team held its shape throughout the game. I must give credit to Ryan Meara here as well. In addition to his great positioning and some phenomenal shot stopping, the young keeper is communicating well with his defense.
As a result, we didn’t see bunched players and 3-yard passes that produce nothing. Instead, players had space to move and could better retain possession. For once, back passes were made with purpose—not just because the player couldn’t find anything better to do. Holgersson was often in a slightly withdrawn position that gave the back line even more space that was used effectively to distribute the ball forward.
Want proof? Check out the Chalkboard "heatmap" on Dax McCarty’s distribution for the first two games and then Sunday’s game. Against FCD and RSL, you can see that McCarty is all over the field—and not in a good way. No wonder there was no semblance of a game strategy and Henry had to track back to get things moving. Now look at McCarty’s distribution against Colorado. While I am not as high on his Sunday performance as some, you can see that McCarty is sticking much more closely to the center of the field--playing mostly behind the mid line. The numbers aren’t radically different, but his role on the field clearly is. That may not work every game, and may not be a long-term solution, but it is a welcome change from the disorganization we saw earlier.
Second, except for Rafa’s giveaway that led to Colorado’s lone goal, he and Conde were extremely composed on the ball allowing the other players to play their roles and not be flying all over the field chasing balls. It’s no secret that Miller and Solli (who still looked a bit rough) are more wingbacks than true defenders. Look at the maps for Conde and Holgersson and you’ll see that they were very disciplined in patrolling their respective sides of the field. This control of the middle helped Miller and Solli move forward without the defense breaking down.
The root of this transformation, I think, comes down to trust. Last year it was fairly evident that Rafa did not trust his defensive teammates. Backe asked him to be the link and provide distribution into the attacking third—but how could he do that if he was constantly worried about what was happening behind him? As a result, Rafa could never embrace his prescribed role. Whether his mistrust was warranted is debatable, but it infected him and the team. Now, Rafa knows that Conde is managing things, so he can concentrate on the linkage play RBNY needs to spark the offense. Similarly, Henry knows Rafa is backing him up, so he can focus on scoring goals.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few weeks and especially to see whether this trust evaporates the first time Rafa or Conde has to sit out a game or two.