For the New York Red Bulls, the opening game of the 2021 Major League Soccer (MLS) season took place on Saturday evening against Sporting Kansas City. New York's home opener was significant for many reasons but most of all it was the start Gerhard Struber's first game as the Red Bulls' head coach. The Red Bulls took the field at Red Bull Arena in front of a crowd filled at %15 capacity, which was restricted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
New York grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 48th minute thanks to a one-time volley from 17-year-old midfielder Caden Clark, off of a cross into Kansas City's 18-yard-box.
Caden Clark is built different. pic.twitter.com/6vQek6RfJu
— New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) April 18, 2021
However, Sporting Kansas City showed guts and determination and scored back-to-back goals in the 59th and 60th minutes to ruin the Red Bulls home opener.
Struber's First Red Bulls Lineup
The New York Red Bulls front office signed 13 new players during the offseason. So, Head Coach Struber had plenty of new players to pick from when arranging his starting eleven. Fabio, who was signed from FC Oeste of Brazil’s Serie B during the offseason, made his MLS debut as the Red Bulls' lone striker. Head coach Gerhard Struber went to battle with a 4-2-3-1 formation that included three midfielders, Caden Clark, New Jersey-native Brian White and Christian Casseres Jr who logged important minutes during the 2020 MLS Season.
New York Red Bulls' two holding midfielders on Saturday were Captain Sean Davis and Youba Diarra. who was loaned from Red Bulls Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga 1 in February. One thing that has become clear about the 23-year-old midfielder from Mali in Africa is that he possesses a strong physique, even if he is not very tall (five-foot, ten). Diarra was brought in this offseason to win the ball and start the counter attack for the Red Bulls speedy midfield and he did his job today.
On the backline, it was no surprise to see Aaron Long, who wore the Captain’s armband for the U.S. Men’s National Team’s during friendly matches against Trinidad and Tobago and El Salvador in December and January, take the field to start at center back for the Red Bulls. It was surprising to see 25-year-old Sean Nealis get the start as Long's partner. Nealis had only played in 17 MLS matches coming into this opening day game of the 2021 season.
Carlos gets the nod for New York Red Bulls
It was surprising for Struber to pick Carlos Colonel as the Red Bulls' starting goalkeeper Saturday evening. Head coach Struber was very high on Colonel during training camp, he said this:
"Carlos brings experience of playing in the Champions League and has shown that in big games he can bring stable performances and leadership on the field." - Gerhard Struber
Going into this season, Colonel had made four starts in MLS, all with Philadelphia Union in 2020. Secondly, the Red Bulls already had experienced goalkeepers such as David Jensen, 29, and Ryan Meara, 30 on their roster already. Jensen and Meara were able to split goalkeeping duties and help New York make the playoffs last season. This evidence makes it peculiar that Struber decided to start Colonel, a goalkeeper with little Major League Soccer experience, to kick off the 2021 MLS season, but that’s what happened and here is a recap of the Red Bulls opening game.
The Red Bulls were coming off a mediocre 2020 campaign, in which they posted a 9-5-9 record. On the other hand, Sporting Kansas City, coached by MLS most experienced manager Peter Vermes, were coming off a stellar 2020 season which saw KC go 12-3-6 and finish in first place in the Western Conference.
The action was even through the first 30 minutes of the game. The Red Bulls starting striker, Fabio was noticeable and active in the attacking third, but did not get any clear shots on goal.
In the 32nd minute, 2019 Red Bulls defensive player of the year, Christian Casseres Jr. teed up a shot from about 25 yards out in the center of the field that just missed hitting the net just inside the left post. Casseres is a 21-year-old Venezuelan midfielder who has scored 5 goals and 7 assists in 41 games since the 2018 season.
In the 48th minute, Fabio and a Sporting Kansas defender went up for a head-ball and the ball bounced toward Clark. The 17-year-old was in the right spot at the right time and hit the ball on the volley and it hit the twine for his first of the early 2021 season.
Sporting Kansas City Strikes Back
Whatever Sporting’s head coach and US Soccer Hall-of-famer Pat Vermes told his team at half-time, it worked. Vermes is the longest-tenured head coach in Major League Soccer and has the 2013 MLS Cup on his resume. Clark scored his first goal of the year on a one-time volley inside the 18-yard-box and the hosts went up 1-0, but Sporting Kansas City turned up their motivation.
Sporting Kansas City passed the ball well inside the Red Bulls half in the 56th minute, which led to a good shot being taken by Gianluca Busio. Busio’s drilled a hard low shot on Red Bulls goal, but Colonel was equal to the task and made the save with a strong hand and did not surrender a rebound.
Sporting Kansas City Takes The Lead
Sporting Kansas City side got a little bit of luck, when Red Bulls starting left-back Andrew Gutman stuck out his right hand in an unnatural position and a Kansas City forward struck Gutman’s hand while he was trying to send in a cross. It was an unfortunate bounce for the Red Bulls young full-back, but the question was could Colonel back his player up? Gadi Kinda stepped up to take a crucial spot-kick for Sporting Kansas City. Carlos Colonel guessed right on the direction of Kinda's penalty-shot, but the shot found the back of the net high over a diving Colonel and tied the game at one goal apiece.
Now New York's defense, which had played well all game, began to slip. In any sport, a coach will tell you the most important shift is right after a goal is scored. The team that scored wants to keep their momentum going and the team that conceded. wants to take the game away from their opponent. At any rate, it's vital that the team that scored keeps their opponent from scoring too soon after that goal.
The Red Bulls were unable to keep their opponents off the scoresheet when in the 60th minute, they gave Kansas City too much space to stride forward into their defensive half. Kansas City then moved into the Red Bulls' attacking third and played a ball out wide for right wing Khiry Shelton. Shelton took the pass and delivered a ground-cross that went across the face of goal and found Sporting Kansas City’s left-wing Daniel Salloi . The Hungarian scored easily to put the visitors in front 2-1. Salloi’s 60th minute goal ended up being the goal that decided the match. Sporting employed defensive approach for the rest of the match and saw it through to the final whistle.
Neither the Red Bulls or Sporting Kansas City were firing on all cylinders offensively on Saturday. Both teams had four shots and none were on goal. After the game, Red Bulls’ captain Sean Davis commented on his team’s performance.
“We were pretty solid for the most part, took the game on our terms for the most part, but we’re going to be disappointed when we look at some key moments where we didn’t execute in either box. When we limit them to so few chances, we have to make sure we get a shutout.” - NYRB Captain Sean Davis
Sean Davis was optimistic that this loss can serve as a learning experience for the Red Bulls young squad.
“There’ no excuses, we had a long preseason and we made some good progress, but the more times we get on the field together, the more things will get better. At the same time, we’re disappointed [to lose] because it was a solid game. If we can sharpen up in both boxes, that’s going to be key for us.”
The New York Red Bulls hit the road to take on the Los Angeles Galaxy in California on Sunday April 25 at 5:30 PM Eastern time. The Red Bulls rookie head coach will be looking for his first victory with the club and we will see if he decides to start the same players that he lost with on April 17 against Sporting Kansas City.
Anthony graduated from Montclair State University, where he covered a variety of sports for three years. He co-hosts a sports-themed radio show on campus radio station, WMSC 90.3 FM, which was recently named #1 college radio station in the nation.