It became easy to forget the Red Bulls were without perhaps their best player.
After Aaron Long ruptured his Achilles tendon on May 15, New York more or less held down the fort in the absence of its star center back. The has team amassed 12 points in nine games, twice beat an impressive Orlando side and conceded a middling-but-not-terrible 13 goals in the process.
The cracks are now starting to show.
Against DC United last weekend, New York was carved wide open for the lone goal of the match, before scorer Ola Kamara scuffed another good chance to double the hosts’ lead before halftime.
The visitors allowed no shots on target in the second half, and the 1.3 xG it conceded is not some abominable figure. But the match was a harsh reminder of what the Red Bulls are missing in Long.
In place of Long, who has 21 USMNT appearances to date, the Red Bulls have trotted out some combination of 21-year-old Andres Reyes, Amro Tarek, Sean Nealis (both mostly backups last season) and converted right-back Tom Edwards in the middle. Edwards and Tarek got the nod vs. DC, and the back line looked disorganized and devoid of its leader during the two big chances it conceded in the first half.
Leadership aside, there’s a talent gap between the other center backs and Long, and coach Gerhard Struber is starting to take notice.
“I have nevertheless a good feeling and I have big trust in my team,” he said after the 1-0 loss, “but maybe we expect in the moment, a little bit too much for [some of the players].”
Long’s injury felt seismic at the time, and then faded a bit to the background as the team won at about the same rate. It should still feel seismic now, especially with one Red Bulls win in six matches and the team down to ninth place in the East (albeit with two games in hand on some teams).
This isn’t a call for panic — DC are a decent team. Edwards, Nealis, and Reyes (all 24-years-old or younger) should continue growing, and more than half of the season remains.
But let last Sunday be a reminder: this is not the same team without Long.
Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Floodgates open for NYCFC
NYCFC have been undone by poor luck and/or finishing at various points this season, but it left nothing to chance last Sunday.
New York City walloped Orlando 5-0, recording its highest xG tally of the season (3.9) per FBref, and reversing some of its defensive misfortunes. Goals from distance, such as three Lucas Zelarayan free-kicks across two games, have hurt the team this season, so fans will have enjoyed seeing Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi score from difficult positions.
This sort of equilibrium shaking out over a season is why xG (aka expected goals) is fairly good at measuring a team’s quality, and why NYCFC (in possession of the best xGD/90 in MLS) are analytics darlings of models like FiveThirtyEight’s.
On a more human level, Taty Castellanos brought his nine-game goal drought to an end with a late tap-in, which will do wonders for his confidence.
There’s no stat for that, of course, but an in-form Castellanos alongside Medina, Tajouri-Shradi and, eventually, Heber, could be quite the formidable frontline.
New York City can’t afford to wait another nine games.