Harrison, New Jersey –
“I think this is the kind of game that defines a season.”
In a game where platitudes and hyperbole reign supreme, Jesse Marsch’s assessment of his team’s win against the Houston Dynamo was neither.
And it would have applied equally as well had the Red Bulls not overcome what appeared to be a certain defeat at the hands of a team that had just embarrassed FC Dallas, seven days earlier.
By halftime, things were looking rather bleak for New York, despite Sacha Kljestan’s fortuitous and opportunistic, opening goal. Not only had Houston scored two goals from two defensive mistakes, but the home team had also lost Gonzalo Veron and Gideon Baah to hamstring injuries (they were later joined by Ronald Zubar for the same reason). Visibly distraught and in tears, the Ghanaian’s face seemed the harbinger of yet another defeat.
Had Baah’s injury not occurred only a couple of minutes before halftime, things could have easily unraveled for the Red Bulls. The unity and conviction that were so apparent last season had clearly been zapped, and players cut disconsolate figures devoid of any confidence.
After the game, captain, Dax McCarty, conceded that he was questioning the team’s character and hunger, while Luis Robles told me that facing three defeats in a row to start the season would have been “massive, as far as the pressure and stress” that would come with them.
If there was ever a test of #RBNY resolve, this would be it. Facing 3rd loss & w/ two players limping off, Marsch needs to rally his troops
— Eric Krakauer (@bigsoccerheadNY) March 19, 2016
However, the halftime break allowed the Red Bulls to collect themselves, and more importantly, provided Jesse Marsch with an opportunity to address his team. “The funny thing for me was watching the team play nervy and scared in the first half. We lost two games, and guys don’t want to lose balls, guys don’t want to make mistakes” Marsch said during the post-game press conference.
“I just tried to say to them at halftime,” he continued, “the very first conversation I had with our team, way back, the only thing there’s no tolerance for around here is not playing with everything you have. I don’t care if we lose this game. Go out and play. Go after the game.”
As it turns out, Marsch’s challenge proved the catalyst for a second half surge. Both Robles and Felipe Martins acknowledged as much, with the former claiming that it was necessary to “jump-start” the team.
The coach particularly inspired the Brazilian, who is among the team’s most fiery characters, which is curious considering how at ease he is off the field. With the score tied at three and having already collected a yellow for dissent, Felipe unleashed a rocket from the top of the box that gave Houston’s Joe Willis absolutely no chance.
“The speech of Jesse (sic) made everybody’s mind change,” Felipe said. “He said, don’t play afraid because we are in this together. No matter what happens tonight, if we lose, we lose playing the way we want to play.” The goal further galvanized the Red Bulls, and with the electrified supporters firmly behind the team, once again, Felipe took it upon himself to decide the game, when Houston conceded a free-kick at the edge of the area.
Ordinarily, given the proximity to Willis’ goal, the plan would be to put a rehearsed play into action. But feeling encouraged by his earlier strike, and admitting later on that scoring was an area he needed to improve on, Felipe asked Kljestan if he could take the kick, telling his teammate that he was going to score.
“I have been working the past couple of weeks on some shooting,” Felipe said. And added, “thank you to Sacha too. He let me take the free kick.”
With the first three points in the bag, the Red Bulls can go into the international break with a little less pressure on their shoulders.
However, while there’s recognition that a miserable start to the season was avoided, and that the win will bring some regularity, no one in the club expects things to get easier; least of all, Marsch, who added a little tenet to his press conference.
“This can be an interesting business. And it’s not for the weak of heart, and it rewards people and players that are brave and have courage, and want to be in the toughest moments. When things get tough, that’s when for me it gets to be the most fun.”
There is no doubt that the Red Bulls showed bravery and courage in a tough moment against Houston. As for the fun part, I’ll let you decide.
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny
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