In a microsm of the Red Bulls’ season, Amro Tarek stumbles to the ground against D.C. United Wednesday night. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY)
By Michael Lewis
Through the history of sports journalism, writers have written about must-win games and possible turning points of the season for teams, ad nauseum.
I’ve done it and just about all of my colleagues have as well.
It would be an understatement that Sunday night’s game between the Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union falls into that category for the former, especially in the wake of Chris Armas’ dismissal as head coach Friday morning.
Given the puzzling performance and sub-par home result against struggling D.C. United Wednesday night, the Red Bulls face a fork in the road in this, the most unusual Major League Soccer seasons, of them all.
For those of you not familiar what transpired at Red Bull Arena a few nights ago, here is a concise history:
Despite enjoying a 17-5 shot advantage, the Red Bulls (3-4-2, 11 points) could not find the net – again. Yet, D.C. (2-4-3, 9) did, in the eighth minute of stoppage time to steal three points thanks to a 1-0 victory.
Since MLS’ Phase I of the return to stadium play kicked off in August, the Red Bulls have stumbled to a 1-2-1 mark and scored all of two goals in four matches, while suffering two shutouts. One of those goals was a gift by New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who allowed a Kyle Duncan shot to go through his hands and just barely landed on the other side of the goal line (although NYCFC will disagree vehemently).
Their seven goals in nine games are tied with the New England Revolution and Atlanta United for the fourth worst in the Eastern Conference. They are tied for fifth worst in the 24-team league.
As you probably know already, a Red Bulls forward hasn’t scored a goal in nine matches, which is a stunning statistic.
Was this match the nadir of the season? Will other confounding results follow? Or will the Red Bulls find the fortitude and climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves?
On some occasions, teams will rise up from whatever abyss they might be staring at and get a result and save a season that could be on the brink, even this early and even with a 3-4-2 mark.
On others, sides have fallen short, sometimes considerably short, and have continued to unravel and fail to reach their potential.
Teams usually get a bounce after a coach is fired or leaves the team. With this team, who knows?
The Red Bulls find themselves at a crossroad. They can pull themselves up and start the road back to and show the team deserves to be in the playoffs. Or they can go find themselves on the down escalator.
While you can’t measure it in numbers, team spirit and confidence can go a long way in determining which clubs are successful and those who are heading for the cellar.
With a new coach – interim or permanent – to be named in the near future, the Red Bulls face many problems and challenges with its personnel.
The midfield is mediocre. Except for Daniel Royer, there is no one dynamic who can play on a consistent basis. Whoever will coach the team must put together not only the right players in the right positions, but the ones who play well together.
The forward line might create chances, but to use a baseball term, unfinished opportunities are just runners left on base.
While the defense has been solid this season, it faces much pressure to complete every match with a clean sheet because Red Bulls goals have been so few and far between.
Quite frankly, I haven’t seen a consistent team that will actually celebrate goals this season.
Perhaps newcomers Samuel Tetteh, a forward, and Dru Yearwood, a midfielder, will make a difference.
What will it be Red Bulls? The ball is in your side of the pitch.