Confidence bubbling to surface for Red-hot Bulls
By Pat Martin, MLS Editor
East Rutherford, NJ (Sports Network) -
It started out as a small bubble on July 19, when the New York Red Bulls battled to a 2-2 draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy to snap a two-game losing streak in Major League Soccer play.
A couple more bubbles the next week when the Red Bulls earned a tough road point on the other side of the country, starting a modest two-game unbeaten run.
The bubbles began to roll when, in back-to-back weeks, New York earned decisive victories over Eastern Conference rivals D.C. United and Toronto FC to get back into playoff contention.
Now the team's confidence is at a full boil after defeating the two-time defending champion Houston Dynamo, 3-0, at Giants Stadium on Sunday without three key players in the lineup.
"Our confidence is really high and coach [Juan Carlos Osorio] is really confident in us," New York winger Dane Richards said. "That helps a lot when the coach is confident in us so we're going out there, getting the job done like he told us to do, and we're just winning. So we'll [try] to keep it up."
Jorge Rojas is the midfield maestro the team thought it was getting.
"It's just coming together for the whole team," New York goalkeeper Jon Conway said. "Once we get going and get some good confidence, we're able to work real well and it's great."
After starting the season 5-6-5, the team's turnaround began with that game vs. L.A., when Jorge Rojas and Juan Pietravallo joined the lineup to shore up the midfield. Rojas, a 31-year-old Venezuelan international, is the midfield maestro the team thought it was getting when it signed Claudio Reyna before last season. Pietravallo is a 26-year-old tough-as-nails Argentine holding midfielder to team up with Seth Stammler in front of the back line.
"There are a few new additions, but for the most part it's the same crew," Conway said. "It's just a matter of confidence. Once we got going and got a couple big wins and started flying, it's [been] great. We know we can keep a zero on the board and with [striker] Juan [Pablo Angel] scoring, it helps a lot too when he's getting us a goal a game and giving us some leeway."
In the weeks that followed the additions of Rojas and Pietravallo, the team added 22-year-old Mexican defender Diego Jimenez and 24-year-old Venezuelan defender Gabriel Cichero. Cichero was slotted right into the starting lineup while Jimenez was signed to a developmental deal.
But with Cichero suspended two games for an elbow to the head of Toronto's Danny Dichio on Aug. 17 coupled with an injury to Jeff Parke, Jimenez was forced to start on Sunday vs. Houston. Also, Rojas missed the game because he was stuck in his native Venezuela with passport issues.
"Winning games builds confidence," Angel said. "[Sunday] was a big challenge for us because we were missing three key players [Rojas, Parke and Cichero] and the guys who stepped on the field did a terrific job. I'm talking about Diego Jimenez in his debut. I thought he was very good and the other lads that played instead of the three guys that were missing [were good too].
"But it's about getting the job done. There was a little bit of concern during the week because of the three players who weren't allowed to play or weren't fit to play and we showed we're back in contention again.
"I think it was the most solid performance we've had so far since I've been here. Basically, we got the job done in a very good manner. We were solid in every line. It wasn't fancy [soccer], it was just very effective [soccer] and we won against arguably the best team in the league with probably the strongest team that they could play. The only player that was missing was Brian Ching," Angel added.
RETURN TO FORM
Another key to the turnaround for the Red Bulls (8-6-7) is the return to fitness and form of star striker Angel. The Colombian was hobbled early in the season with back and hamstring issues that resulted from a nerve problem. But he's finally healthy and thriving and, not coincidentally, so is the team.
After scoring 19 goals in his first season in MLS last year, Angel, 33, had just two in the first half of this season. But since July 10, he has six goals in six games, leading the team to a 3-1-2 record in that span.
"It's huge [having Angel back in form]. Otherwise I'd be crossing to guys that are like five feet. Dane Richards [5-foot-7] and Mike Magee [5-foot-9], they have different strengths," New York left winger Dave van den Bergh quipped. "But Juan Pablo Angel [6-foot-1] in the air is a big, huge threat as we saw again [Sunday when he scored the opening goal vs. Houston by heading in a cross]."
UNDER THE RADAR
Rojas has made an immediate impact on the offense since his arrival, registering four assists while linking between the midfield and forward lines. But Pietravallo has made just as big an impact - if not bigger - to the defense since joining the team.
"I think defensively, we look like a team now," Osorio said. "We probably overlooked the job that Juan Pietravallo has done in the last three games as an anchorman in front of the back four, but his contribution in my opinion is huge. Now we look like a very well-balanced team. We can attack, we have some threat on the flanks, Juan [Pablo Angel] is always a threat but we [are doing a better job] defensively."
Since Pietravallo stepped into the starting lineup on July 27, the Red Bulls have given up just 0.5 goals-per-game. Prior to that, the team gave up over a goal-per-game more.
"I think he didn't come here to score goals," Angel said. "I think he came in here to do what's he's doing now. He's a solid player, he's one of those hard, tough midfielders and he's showing that week in and week out. He's one of those guys who the crowd probably doesn't want to watch because he doesn't appear much in the game but when we need him, he's always there. I think that he's showed that the more he plays, the fitter he gets and the more important he becomes. We knew from day one that all four players [Rojas, Pietravallo, Jimenez, Cichero] were going to be big players for us and I think that's been the case in the last three games."
DEPTH TO BOOT
Now, when the full lineup is available, the Red Bulls feel they can stack up against any lineup in the league.
"I believe with the effort that we showed [Sunday] and with the team spirit and the way we can play [soccer] now, we can compete against Houston and every other team in the league," Osorio said.
But even more important than that, when missing key players - as it was on Sunday - the team is confident that its depth can take over.
"I think that's the most pleasing thing [about Sunday]," Osorio said. "As you just mentioned, [we had] three very important players missing and the guys who got the chance took it with both hands and made the best out of it and contributed greatly to a great win. That's what this whole game is about - it's competition, it's waiting for your chance and putting in the contribution when it's required, when you get the opportunity, and that's what the guys did."
With the absences, Osorio switched off from his normal 3-5-2 formation to a more traditional 4-4-2, concentrating his attack from the wings with Richards and Van den Bergh instead of the middle of the field. The strategy obviously worked, with Richards getting a goal, Van den Bergh getting an assist, and Angel and fellow striker Mike Magee getting goals.
"It's just right that we have more competition for places and I have more options and hopefully I can decide what is best for the club," Osorio said.
"That is huge beating Houston," Magee said. "I don't believe we have a very good track record [against them]. Especially missing three guys we've been counting on lately and have been doing a lot of work for us. For the first time this year I think we can say we actually have depth. We could miss a couple guys and we're still strong and can compete with a team like Houston.
"I really think our depth has played a pretty big role. If we can take this confidence - which I think we will - into D.C. and then Chicago [in the Red Bulls next two league fixtures], I think we will be able to get some good results even away from home now."
WHAT LIES AHEAD
The Red Bulls face a key MLS fixture on Saturday, traveling to D.C. United, a team they are currently tied with in the Eastern table. After beating them 4-1 on Aug. 10 at Giants Stadium, New York knows it will get a better effort in D.C.
"[We expect] the same things we always expect in games against D.C.," Angel said. "They are always tough, they are a good side going forward. We showed [on Aug. 10] that we can beat them as well. Now we got the momentum going and it's going to be a different kind of game.
"It's going to be another big test for us. I think from now until the end of the season, every game is going to be hard because everything is pretty tight [in the standings]. But I think that we have confidence and we want to keep the momentum going."