The talking is over. The result speaks volumes.
New York City were dominated — at times, ruthlessly — by the New York Red Bulls. Despite being up a man for nearly 55 minutes, the Blues were unable to make the advantage count. Time and again, their defense was carved up by the Bulls; their offense, meanwhile, was suffocated by a relentless New York press that consistently denied New York City any real opportunities at dictating the game.
The game had hardly started before the Red Bulls struck. Lloyd Sam took possession of the ball close to New York City's 18-yard box. Sam then ran right at Blues defender RJ Allen — who'd only been signed by the team a week ago — and easily, disdainfully, shook him off. A cross from him then found the league's reigning Golden Boot winner, Bradley Wright-Phillips, alone in front of goal.
Goal, New York. Four minutes in.
Red Bull Arena exploded. The kind of nightmare start that New York City feared.
Creditably, the Blues attempted to respond. To no avail; the Bulls pressure constricted any avenue of attack that New York City essayed. Despite that, in the 21st minute, defender Chris Wingert appeared to score the equalizer, off a free kick. Not according to the linesman; he raised his flag for offside, as the Blues celebrated. Arms raised in joy became shoulders slumped in dejection.
Some semblance of help came for New York City in the 36th minute. Defender Matt Miazga, already booked for tangling up with New York City's Khiry Shelton in the 18th minute, did it again. Referee Alan Kelly reached into his pocket, flashed the red card, and sent Miazga off. Could New York City take advantage?
Hardly. It's known that trying to break down a disciplined unit of 10 men defending the goal can be incredibly tough; tougher, in fact, than going up 11 on 11. Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch made an immediate substitution, replacing midfielder Mike Grella with defender Karl Ouimette. Ouimette had been shaky against New England; would New York City test him? No. Ouimette was equal to the task.
Halftime came. The Blues came out in the second half looking to make their advantage felt. It didn't work. Five minutes into the half, the Red Bulls simply shredded New York City. Lloyd Sam rampaged into massive amounts of open ground, surrendered inexplicably. A simple switch to Sacha Kljestan from Sam; then from Kljestan, a simple pass to an unmarked — how? seriously? — Wright-Phillips, who simply tapped the ball past a hapless Josh Saunders.
For all intents and purposes, that was the game. Wright-Phillips had a chance at a hat-trick in the 65th minute, as he found himself one-on-one with Saunders again; instead of passing to a wide-open Damien Perrinelle, he shot. Saunders kick-saved, and the peril was past.
Blues coach Jason Kreis tried to jolt his team into life with a quick series of substitutions, designed to take advantage of New York's flagging energy defending a man down. First, Kwadwo Poku in the 64th minute, for a desperately disappointing Mix Diskerud; then Patrick Mullins for David Villa, and finally Mehdi Ballouchy for Pablo Alvarez. The second of these subs was particularly noteworthy. Villa ambled off the field; when Kreis quietly told him to hurry up, Villa cocked his head dismissively and rolled his eyes.
During the post-match press conference, Kreis sought to quell any impression of dissatisfaction. "I think David was a little frustrated on the night. He's coming back from an injury and he's got a bit of rust to knock off. At the end of the day, we have to make decisions that are a little bit more ‘future-thinking' than just about trying to get a result tonight," Kreis explained. "At 70 minutes, the decision was made [to] protect him for the next one and keep him healthy."
For his part, Villa bolstered Kreis' decision. "I didn't get it at first but he explained it to me later and it's not a problem. It was for my good and the good of the club," said the Spanish legend. "Jason is the boss. He is my boss and he decided the best option for me and the club and there is nothing more to explain. I am thankful that he told me why."
The additions of Poku and Mullins finally breathed life into a stale lineup. With his aggressive, direct running, Poku made himself a nuisance to the Bulls' midfield and defense. Meanwhile, Mullins' speed and energy meant that New York's defense couldn't continue its swashbuckling ways.
In the 76th minute, it finally paid off. Poku made a run, dumped the ball off to RJ Allen, who ran to the touchline before crossing to Mullins. Mullins beat his marker to the spot, and slid home a goal.
The final 15 minutes saw New York City finally make a game of it, as they frantically pushed for any kind of equalizer. To counter the increased pressure from the Blues, Marsch removed Lloyd Sam for defender Roy Miller, effectively going to a 5-3-1 formation. That only served to invite even more pressure from New York City. Despite that, however, the Blues were unable to find a tying goal, as the Bulls parried attack after attack with ease, even counter-attacking.
The whistle blew; players bent over in exhaustion. Some hugged their counterparts, whilst others stared into space. The game over, the Red Bulls were triumphant.
At eight games — and counting — New York City's winless streak is fast approaching record territory for a maiden team. Vancouver has it, with a 12-game winless stretch in their inaugural season. In five short days, they play Chicago at home; you wouldn't be blamed if you thought the streak would grow to nine games
This is as utterly disjointed a team as I've ever seen. The difference between the Red Bulls and the Blues was stark; where the Bulls were efficient and disciplined, New York City was wasteful and out of sorts. In effect, New York City has 11 men doing 11 different things. The rampant injuries don't help, to be sure. Still, you'd expect some kind of fluidity, some kind of rhythm to be developing, ten games into the season.
It is not.
On Sunday, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan outclassed David Villa and Mix Diskerud, and not by a little. Villa, at least, is coming back from two injuries; what's Diskerud's excuse? This is a player whom everyone expected to charge up New York City's attack. Given that the Blues won't see Frank Lampard and their third, final, DP until the summer, the burden lies heavily on Diskerud's shoulders.
He hasn't delivered. Jason Kreis was subtle, yet cutting in his analysis of Diskerud when asked.
"I thought Mix was just not great tonight," said Kreis in the post-game press conference. "I thought he was kind of in and around things and not making plays, either in the attacking half or the defensive half."
Except it wasn't just last night. This has been going on throughout New York City's winless streak. I've criticized Mehdi Ballouchy in the past for disappearing in games, but if anything, Diskerud has been much more invisible. Diskerud's feet is where New York City's offense goes to die, often for long stretches of the game. Maybe it's because he's not used to playing so deep; maybe it's because he lacks the vision and skills to play in that position.
Either way, his disappearing act isn't something New York City can afford anymore. It's time to replace Diskerud in the starting lineup, and insert either Thomas McNamara or Kwadwo Poku in his stead.
As it stands, New York City are still only three points out of a playoff spot. If there's a truism to remember about MLS, it is that it's an incredibly forgiving league. There are twenty-four games to go; Friday against Chicago being the next. Can New York City kickstart themselves?
I don't know. But all it takes is one game.