While his team was in pregame warmups Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, Union sporting director Ernst Tanner stood on the sideline and chatted with two of the most powerful men in the world’s game.
One was Gérard Houllier, the former manager of Liverpool and other European giants, now the head of Red Bull’s global soccer conglomerate. The other was Oliver Mintzlaff, CEO of Germany’s RB Leipzig, the biggest team in the Red Bull empire — and in some estimations, the true head of the household.
Tanner was their colleague for six years until he moved to Philadelphia last summer. He was a key cog in the system, running the academy at Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg. Tanner’s old team has been in the local news again lately: its manager, Princeton-bred former New York Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch, just became the first American to coach in the UEFA Champions League.
We might never know what the three men talked about, but we do know this: Once the game kicked off, Houllier and Mintzlaff’s team gave a clear statement to Tanner’s team.
The Union want to play a style of soccer similar to the Red Bulls’: fast, high-pressing and focused on transitions. At times, it has looked the part, and for much of this season, it has been quite successful.
But New York showed that while its season has been subpar, it has more experience with the playbook than the team it beat. That’s why the Union had 60 percent of the possession but only 8 shots to the home team’s 17.
There were significant stretches when the two teams’ similar approaches — the fashionable name for it is “counter-pressing” — canceled each other out. But in the moments in which one team or the other slipped, the Red Bulls had just a bit more savvy.
In the locker room afterward, Fafa Picault knew what he had seen.
“I think we had times where we could have been a bit quicker with our play and exposed them, and we didn’t, so we paid for it,” he said. “I don’t think they particularly played great soccer tonight, but they did out-fight us, and they took advantage of situations.”
Here are a few other observations as the Union get ready for the hardest game of their road trip Wednesday night at San Jose (11 p.m., WPVI-6.2/Live Well Network):
A need to shoot more
No matter the words used for a tactical system, the end goal is almost always the same: Do something useful with the ball when you have it. The Union too often did not, especially when their central midfielders got to the edge of the 18-yard box.
Jamiro Monteiro and Haris Medunjanin in particular seemed to be looking for passes when shooting opportunities presented themselves at that distance. Both men are plenty capable of firing away from long range, and of hitting the target.
New York attempted eight shots from beyond the 18-yard box against the Union. Four of them were on target, all from midfielders. The Union, by contrast, attempted just two — one each by Kacper Przybylko and Monteiro — and both came in the middle of the first half, during the team’s best stretch of the night.
Meanwhile, the Union’s best long-range shooter was on the bench until the 75th minute. There is a growing case that Marco Fabián isn’t a perfect tactical fit for the Union: He doesn’t press defensively as much as Monteiro, and he doesn’t always drive with the ball as Brenden Aaronson does. But he has a better instinct to shoot first and ask questions later.
The Union need that. And even with the complications Fabián brings, they need him.
Blake owns his gaffe
We in the media are sometimes guilty of overhyping when players talk or don’t after games. But for those who care, you’ll like to know that Union goalkeeper Andre Blake stepped up to the cameras and fully owned the spill that led to New York’s first goal.
“I know it’s a big mistake and it cost us the game tonight. I’ll take full responsibility for that, and I’ll be ready for the next game,” he said. “It’s not my first mistake, and it won’t be the last. We’ve just got to move on. In this sport, you’ve got to have short-term memory and it’s not about your mistakes but how you react.”
Medunjanin deserves a night off
This is meant as a compliment. Really, it is. Haris Medunjanin has earned the right to a night off after playing every single minute of the season so far.
San Jose likes to force a frenetic playing style on opponents, and the Union can fight back with Warren Creavalle in the defensive midfield. So let Medunjanin rest and be healthy for the game in Columbus, whose midfield he can pick apart.
Another note on charter flights
My recent column on Union ownership’s not stepping up to buy charter flights for the game at San Jose struck nerves with the team and the fan base. (It also drew praise from a player at practice after it was published.)
The point was hammered home again Monday when the New England Revolution, owned by Patriots owner Bob Kraft, flew to Portland on one of the planes Kraft bought for his NFL team.
New England’s official website published a story about the trip. Players and team president Brian Bilello spoke in it about the benefits of charter travel. With the subject set to be in the spotlight during this winter’s CBA talks, raising it in an official publication was a gutsy move.
The Revs’ trip in fact cost more than renting a private charter would have, Bilello told The Inquirer. The Krafts’ plane has a larger capacity and higher-level amenities to accommodate the Patriots’ travels.
But New England felt it worth doing as it fights to hold onto the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot.
Expect that to be noticed by the Union and the rest of MLS.