The Red Bulls were beaten in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs before they stepped on the field.
There is no way the front office could have known, neither could have Jesse Marsch. The players certainly didn't know, but that doesn't make it any less true. The Montreal Impact knew how they were going to beat the Red Bulls, and they were built this season to execute it.
"We knew they're a weak team in the playoffs," Ignacio Piatti, a striker for the Impact told reporters after the match. "They showed that last year, this year."
The New York Red Bulls are built on a pressing system. It is controlled chaos that works to exploit teams by catching them off guard when they turn the ball over, especially close to the opponent's goal. The Red Bulls have employed this system for two years, presenting plenty of opportunities for teams to learn how to neutralize it.
2016 was supposed to be about "sophistication" for the Red Bulls. It was the talk of preseason that the team would look to add a new layer to the high press system favored by Red Bull global. Early signs showed there would be a formation shift from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-2-2 empty bucket, which would still utilize our wingers but allow us to bolster our attack with two strikers up front.
The team even was self-aware about what they needed to do to avenge a heart-breaking playoff loss to the Columbus Crew. The Crew a team who looked to sit back and hit the Red Bulls off the counter after scoring a fluke goal less than 20 seconds into leg one.
"We need to be able to have a "Plan B" when we play against teams," Dax McCarty told NewYorkRedBulls.com in February. "We dominated a lot of games last year playing the way that we play and the style that we play. But we saw in the playoffs that our attack became a little bit stale."
For pragmatic reasons the 4-2-2-2 never took off. The team started 1-6-0, and Gonzalo Veron, who was expected to play alongside Bradley Wright-Phillips up top, got hurt. The Red Bulls could also not replace the rock-solid center back pairing of Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle early in the year.
Going back to the 4-2-3-1 formation allowed the team to settle back into strengths of the 2015 Supporter's Shield winning campaign. As a result, the players used in the Red Bulls' attack have remained consistent save for the replacement of homegrown player Alex Muyl in favor of winger Lloyd Sam.
That consistency, constantly given as a strength for this team, has been used enough to show that if teams clog passing lanes in the center of the field, the Red Bulls will be forced to rely on crosses from their wingers and wingbacks to feed players in the box. This, combined with the departure of U.S. international centerback Matt Miazga, has created an incredible, easily exploited weakness.
All a team has to do is cede possession to the Red Bulls, encourage them to press higher, then employ a strong counter attack to neutralize any early lead the Red Bulls will work to get. This is, basically, the strongest aspect of the Montreal Impact's play.
Throughout the 2016 season, Sacha Kljestan was continually able to find space allowing him to feed New York's attack. The space given to him this season helped him become the first MLS player since Carlos Valderrama to dish out 20 assists in an MLS season. Wingers, Mike Grella and Alex Muyl were leaned on for their defense allowing wingbacks Connor Lade and Kemar Lawrence the capability to press high up field. The new-old formation worked and the Red Bulls went into the playoffs having not lost a game since July.
Marsch continued to tinker the 2016 team slightly, not wanting to disrupt the well re-oiled machine. Early in the year he felt comfortable switching to five defenders in the back line when holding a lead to end games. Unfortunately, this created a mindset of holding on to leads instead of pressing to add to them, leading to the Red Bulls repeatedly blowing leads late in games. Overall the Red Bulls blew 18 points throughout the season after holding leads late in the game.
One area of sophistication that seemed to work was the Red Bulls' dead ball play. On the ESPN broadcast of the final game of the year, reporters noted that the Red Bulls had a playbook of over 100 dead-ball plays. Whether or not this is accurate, it shows one area where the team successful mixed things up this year keeping opponents on their toes.
One other tactical change of not was Marsch feeling comfortable adding long-balls to the press. This eased up the Red Bulls full throttle attack, working against teams like the Philadelphia Union. Unfortunately this tactic rarely works against counterattacking teams with strong defenses.
Against Montreal, the Red Bulls executed their game plan perfectly for the first 20 minutes. Gonazlo Veron won a penalty kick, which Kljestan nearly buried if not for a fantastic save by Evan Bush. Soon after, Kljestan was knocked out of the game for 13 minutes with a bloody nose. The event was indicative of the entire strategy by the Red Bulls; they were knocked down, didn't have a "Plan B" and never recovered.
In the time when Kljestan was down, Marsch could have inserted Sean Davis into the game. It admittedly would be a risk, but Davis also brings the strength of effectively passing in traffic that no midfielder on the Red Bulls possesses. Montreal effectively neutralized Kljestan the entire series by clogging up his space and surrounding him. Davis, who shined in limited MLS minutes this year, presented an alternative that would have kept our attacking momentum alive through the center of the field, and would not have forced the Red Bulls out to the wings to attack. Instead the Red Bulls played into their perceived regular season strength and changed their approach through long balls, hampering their ability to press.
Finally, the team's glut of scoring chances in the second half should be attributed to score effects. Montreal scored early in the second half, requiring the Red Bulls to score three goals in just around 40 minutes. The Impact knew they could absorb the Red Bulls attack as long as they could, as the second the Red Bulls scored they would be inserting the best player into the game, Didier Drogba.
The instant Drogba entered the game; he forced the Red Bulls to pay attention to him instead of throwing the kitchen sink at Bush. Droga's first few touches aided dangerous counterattacks, one of which resulted in Montreal's final goal. Mauro Biello kept his trump card on the bench as long he could, holding it over the Red Bulls, and put the tie beyond questioning the second he played it.
So now, it has been two years, with one year of alleged sophistication, where the Red Bulls crashed out of the playoffs. In both final series the team was outsmarted, with the system shown to break down easier than expected. Red Bull global needs to study New York and look into why happened. Questions over the viability of the system with MLS Cup Playoffs need to be explored, including the players on the field and the manger pulling the strings.