Kemar Lawrence has been an integral part of the Red Bulls’ backline. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Whether it is this season or throughout their 23-year history, when you think of the Red Bulls, the names of some of some offensive threats, playmakers and stars come to mind.
Historically, there’s Giovanni Savarese, Adolfo Valencia, Clint Mathis, Amado Guevara, John Wolyniec, Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Angel and Sacha Kljestan.
On the latest version of the team, we have Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kaku (aka Alejandro Romero Gamarra).
That seems to have been an afterthought some of the time.
Well, this just might be a rarity for a Red Bulls squad:
No MLS team has given up fewer goals than New York this season.
I’ll repeat it again:
No MLS team has given up fewer goals than the Red Bulls this year.
That’s right. Entering Saturday’s game at Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Red Bulls have conceded but 23 goals in as many matches.
The closest team to the Red Bulls is Atlanta United with 28 goals allowed in 24 games.
From just plain, cold numbers, the Red Bulls have nine shutouts, six in the friendly confines of Red Bull Arena, three on the road.
They have surrendered only 10 goals in 12 home games and only 13 in 11 road contests.
Moreover, they have one or less goals in a game 17 times out of 23 matches this season, including giving up only two scores in their last five away games entering Saturday’s game.
Impressive numbers, indeed.
When you have a tight defense, it keeps you in the game.
I hate to bring in another sport, but the 1969 Miracle Mets were a rather mediocre hitting team. But thanks to their outstanding young pitching staff and defense, they were able to win games.
They had a number of unlikely heroes. During the heat of the pennant race that September, St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Steve Carlton set a major league record by striking out 19 Mets. Yet, New York won the game. Ron Swoboda cracked a pair of two-run home runs to decide matters in a 4-3 win en route to the National League pennant and eventually the World Series.
There’s a lot of credit to go around on this Red Bulls side.
Let’s start in goal with Luis Robles, whose ironman streak ended this year. Since taking over in the net, Robles has been reliable for most of the time and spectacular when needed. Ryan Meara, who is good enough to start for many teams, is a sure-handed reserve.
In front of Robles is a four-man wall that boasts a relatively young center-back tandem of Aaron Long and Tim Parker. Jamaican international Kemar Lawrence, who should be playing somewhere in Europe given his talents, and Michael Amir Murillo have been consistent and quite effective at the left and right flanks, respectively, and have become a vital part of the attacking when they overlap. And oh yeah, their average age is a staggering 24.3 years.
Of course, defense is more than just the back four. The team’s history of pressing and getting results from those tactics certainly plays into the equation, especially when you have the ubiquitous Tyler Adams and the solid and maturing Sean Davis manning those positions many times.
Saying that, the reserves bring experience and quality to the table and the drop off in play isn’t that stunning due to injuries or international call-ups, especially with the likes of Aurelien Collin, Fidel Escobar and Connor Lade.
Who knows what’s going to happen down the stretch or in the playoffs? Perhaps the Red Bulls take the Supporters Shield or at least finish first or second in the Eastern Conference to get the home-field advantage, at least for the conference semifinals. And heaven forbid, maybe, just maybe they run the table and not only reach MLS Cup, but win it.
I am not trying to get anyone’s hopes up. Given the history of the team, perhaps the Red Bulls will find a way to break their supporters’ hearts sometime in November.
But in many ways, the team is getting positioned for the postseason with a tight defense and an attack that can score, maybe not in record numbers, but enough to win.
Only time will tell whether the 23rd version of the Red Bulls and their backline and team defense can play five games in November and December. If they can, perhaps the names of Long, Parker, Lawrence, Murillo and Robles and company will be mentioned with the likes of Savarese, Mathis, Henry and BWP someday.