Before the first of two Hudson River derbies last week, Ronny Deila revealed his regular-season hopes for NYCFC.
“Our dream and goal is to be number two, of course,” he said with the first place New England Revolution likely out of reach.
A week and just one point later, Deila’s NYCFC has been sucked into the chaos of the Eastern Conference. A 1-0 home loss to the Red Bulls, on the back of a 1-1 draw in New Jersey, leaves just three points between the team’s third place spot and Atlanta in eighth.
A team merely grafting for a playoff spot is not how NYCFC sees itself, nor is it how it is reflected in the numbers. The club comfortably leads the East in xGD/90, per FBref, as it has for much of the year, and FiveThirtyEight likes them as the third-favorites to win the MLS Cup.
But the real-life picture has not been as pretty in the late days of summer. The club has sputtered across August and September, winning three of 11 games, no thanks to a slew of red card suspensions.
While those are never the figures a title contender aspires to, that form has been magnified even more after the disappointing week their chief rivals inflicted upon NYCFC.
“We need to get over it as quickly as possible, we have a lot of disappointed people in the dressing room of course,” Deila said after Saturday’s loss. “Now we must raise ourselves together and bounce back on Wednesday [vs. Chicago].”
With the club still in position to host a playoff match, it’s not the time to panic. But it’s definitely the time for introspection, and right back Anton Tinnerholm offered some interesting clues after the match.
“These games against the Red Bulls is just a war, they play a different style,” he said. “It’s just them in the league who play like this and on a small pitch like this, today they managed it better than we did.
“The Red Bull games are special because they press all over the pitch and you don’t have that time with the ball and you can’t control the game that we want, especially at home.”
Saturday’s loss was just one game, but the Red Bulls’ ability to unnerve their rivals should be somewhat of a wakeup call. It is true that the Red Bulls — with the most middle third and second-most attacking third pressures this season — do play a unique high pressing style that makes it difficult for opponents to progress the ball (especially with starter Keaton Parks suspended Saturday). It’s also true that this deep NYCFC roster, which fancies itself as a contender, needs to find solutions in tough matches.
Whether or not those answers are easier to come by in the remaining months of the season (and likely postseason) remains to be seen, but for now, Red Bulls manager Gerhard Struber deserves credit for making last Saturday a test that his rivals couldn’t pass.
It’s been a difficult first season in New York for the Austrian, and his team is still unlikely to make the postseason. But his fruitful week against NYCFC showed the foundations he is slowly building with his young roster, and will have won him over plenty of goodwill with a somewhat disgruntled fan base.
Even in celebrating the win after the game, Struber acknowledged the gap between the Red Bulls and the Eastern Conference elite, praising his team’s away win “against a team on this level.”
There are still legitimate concerns to be had about the team’s buildup play and chance creation — some of which may be alleviated as younger players continue developing — but the Red Bulls’ 1-0 win bore the signs of an organized team, and one that is buying into a demanding new manager.
The team’s current 11th-place standing, too, is probably a harsh reflection of its true ability, as the club dealt with a bevy of injuries over the summer, and actually falls in the middle of the Eastern Conference based on xG/90 (eighth in the division with a mark of -.02).
Regardless, the Red Bulls are a work in progress, and a team with a massively different short-term outlook than NYCFC. The soccer hasn’t always been glittering, and the goals haven’t always flowed.
It’s been a “learning” year, to use Struber’s words.
That learning will continue Wednesday vs. the Union, but last week, it was enough to humble their favorite foes.
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