Tyler Adams and the Red Bulls stumbled to a 4-1 defeat at the Houston Dynamo. (Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Here we are Monday afternoon after the first full week of the season with five, that’s right, five area soccer teams playing, four in the league, one in preseason.
Of course, there were some good things, some not so good things and some very bad things.
Let’s get the good news out of the way first.
In their home opener in Montclair, N.J., Red Bulls II worked hard to walk out of MSU Soccer Park with a 1-0 victory over the Richmond Kickers Saturday. The United Soccer League defending champions were far from perfect, but gave a solid effort in securing their first three points of the youth season.
While in New Jersey, Sky Blue FC recorded a 1-0 victory over the University of North Carolina in a preseason game. It is difficult to make heads or tails of an exhibition game because it is mostly about teams and players playing themselves into form. But a win is a win is a win, some great sports philosopher once said, and any time you can a win over a team coached by the great Anson Dorrance, not matter what the occasion, and take it and say thank you.
Next, we visit New York City FC, which did not steam roll past the San Jose Earthquakes, but managed to do enough to add three points to its total. Last year, a game like this might have turned with the home side enjoyed a one-goal lead, but the Quakes were denied a late equalizer.
It was fun watching the team link together for both of its goals. The defense, once a major weakness of the team, has improved by leaps and bounds over last season, thanks to the addition of a couple of Alexanders — Alex Ring in the midfield and Alexander Callens at center back.
While head coach Patrick Vieira usually deploys three forwards and wants to dominate ball possession and score goals, he is no dummy. Remember, the 1998 World Cup champion was one of the world’s best defensive midfielders in his day and he understands the balance a team needs to win games and be consistent.
For the first time since last July 2016, City won a game without David Villa scoring (Frank Lampard had a hat-trick in a 5-1 triumph) was blanked in two consecutive games. So, he did the next best thing. He set up both goals in the 2-1 win, both off back-heel passes. Just another demonstration of the mark of a champion.
OK, now for the bottom feeders of the week.
The revived Cosmos played their home opener their new permanent home at MCU Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn with a forgettable 3-0 rout by Miami FC. It certainly was not a way to entertain a near-sellout crowd at the minor-league baseball park.
Yet, given the circumstances of the team, having been resurrected from the dead and head coach Giovanni Savarese forced to build a team from scratch with a little more than two months prior to the March 25 season opener after the team survived its greatest crisis.
The Cosmos hardly looked like themselves or what we had expected of the two-time North American Soccer League defending champions. The attack was anemic without Amauri and Eugene Starikov, who were not at full fitness. They came in as subs and are expected to be the side’s two top scoring threats.
In other words, Savarese and the Cosmos should have enough capital from their past successes for supporters not to panic early on. Of course, if the Cosmos can’t shake their doldrums, there will be plenty of time to hit the panic button in the NASL spring and fall seasons.
And then there are the Red Bulls. They’re 2-2-1 and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Certainly not the end of the world. But it’s elsewhere we must have some worries about because the Red Bulls are hardly looking like defending conference champions.
Let’s see, five goals in as many matches and two have been own goals. The team has surrendered eight goals in three road matches including four in the 4-1 trouncing by the host Houston Dynamo Saturday night. While there were some controversial plays that led to the goals, the Red Bulls did not look like a team ready to compete at the highest level, especially on defense.
Some observers might harken back to last year’s slow 1-6 start as an example of not to worry. But that team suffered through an endless series of hamstring injuries, particularly to center backs, which put New York in a dicey position.
This year’s circumstances are different.
Unlike many other teams, who brought in reinforcements from South America and Europe, the Red Bulls stayed pat, except for the addition of forward Fredrik Gulbrandsen, who is on loan from sister club Red Bull Salzburg.
The Red Bulls are playing a double forward system, as opposed to the single striker set-up in previous years that made Bradley Wright-Phillips so dangerous. The team is without two dangerous wing midfielders who helped make the team so dangerous — Mike Grella (knee injury) and Lloyd Sam (traded to D.C. United).
And we must wonder how much the sale of Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire has hurt the team’s chemistry and cohesion. His successors, Sean Davis and Tyler Adams, have great potential and you can see some flashes of brilliance. But they are different players than the battle-tested McCarty and need to be more consistent. That will take time.
Of course, a solid effort and three points at Orlando City SC Sunday could erase some of these concerns, especially if it gets the Red Bulls back on track.