HARRISON, N.J. — Major League Soccer teams don't generally spend a ton of time worrying too much about the standings in April, but with the Eastern Conference showing considerable improvement, the last thing contenders want to do is fall behind the lead pack early on.
It wasn't too long ago when the Red Bulls looked like they would slip out of view in the East. A four-match winless slide had Jesse Marsch's men looking disjointed and far from the team that finished first in the East last season. A return to the formation that brought so much success in the previous two seasons has helped the Red Bulls regain their top form, and Saturday they showed that they are, in fact, back, as they handed the East-leading Columbus Crew a 2-0 defeat.
The victory — the Red Bulls' second in a row — helped them jump into a tie with the Crew for first place in the East, though Orlando City could move ahead of the Red Bulls with a win against NYCFC in New York on Sunday.
What we have seen in the two recent victories, last week's 2-0 win against D.C. United and Saturday's victory, is a team that looks much more comfortable as a unit, and a team showing more poise in the second half of matches.
"You look at the last couple of games, what we've been able to do is see games out," goalkeeper Luis Robles said. "Even the gamesmanship in the very end, the last five, six minutes, that's part of our development that was missing last year. For us to get the shutout is great. For us to get three points is even better. For us to do it against a good team in our conference is probably the best part."
The Crew failed to show the quality that had them tied for the most points in MLS heading into the weekend, though the way Saturday's match began didn't help matters. Brazilian midfielder Artur suffered a broken wrist in the very first minute, costing the Crew a key figure in the team's recent success, and a player who would have been pivotal in matching up against the Red Bulls' vaunted midfield.
The Crew put together a better second half after a disappointing showing in the opening 45, but they never could break through and really test the Red Bulls defense.
Despite the defeat, Crew coach Gregg Berhalter was happy with the experience his team gained, if not the effort his team gave early in the match.
"They're good games. They're good measuring-stick games," Berhalter told Goal. "Any time you get to play the Red Bulls in Red Bull Arena you get to see where you're at. You get to see what you need to improve on, you get to see the high level of competition, because we know they compete.
"If anything, I'm disappointed in the first 15 minutes of the game," Berhalter said. "We didn't compete well enough. That kind of set the tone for what was going to happen later. Both teams wanted authority in the game, and they got it in the first 15 minutes."
The Red Bulls jumped on the Crew in the early going, with Artur's injury clearly having an impact on the visitors. Alex Muyl's 11th-minute goal gave the Red Bulls control as they succeeded in finding chances while the Crew struggled to find the attacking rhythm that had been a staple of their game this season.
'(Ball movement) just wasn't quick enough," Berhalter said. "The space was there. We just couldn't get it quick enough to the open space. We created a couple of chances, but to really hurt them we really needed to be quicker."
The Red Bulls deserve credit for making things tough on the Crew. Their pressure kept the Crew off balance, as Tyler Adams and Felipe succeeded in neutralizing Crew playmaker Federico Higuain, while Muyl and Connor Lade worked well together to keep Justin Meram from having much success after coming into the match as one of the most in-form players in MLS.
Above all, the Red Bulls looked like a team much more comfortable in the 4-2-3-1 system Marsch brought back after the team struggled to integrate a 4-2-2-2 setup in the first month of the season.
"There's a comfort level with (the 4-2-3-1), a familiarity," Robles said. "We've played the last two years with it, and have had a great deal of success so making the transition back to it is pretty simple, pretty easy for us, and the results have been there with that.
"That being said, it's not as if we're not going to make tactical shifts against opponents. We may go back to how we were playing before, but nonetheless, just to show the development over the past couple of years, and the familiarity with that formation has suited us well."
The 2017 Red Bulls have brought back their old formation, but are obviously a different team to last year's version. Two key differences are on the wings, and in central midfield. Daniel Royer and Muyl have given the team more speed and work rate on the flanks. Young central midfielder Adams has the monumental task of replacing former Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty, and has shown improvement during his current run of starts. Together, Royer, Muyl and Adams look capable of keeping the Red Bulls at or near the top of the East.
That's no easy feat in a conference that is tougher in 2017. Long regarded as the weaker of the two MLS conferences, the East has closed the gap on the West, and with so many teams looking like real contenders, matches like Saturday's Red Bulls-Crew clash have added importance.
"I think the East is a tougher conference," Robles said. "Any time you go against a conference opponent you know there's going to be a little more on the line when it comes to position in the standings, but when you go against a top team there's even more on the line.
"You want to be able to make a statement and I feel tonight was an opportunity to make a statement," Robles said. "Did we play our best soccer? No, but we played well enough to limit their opportunities and take advantage of our opportunities."
The result is a share of first place for the Red Bulls, and a team feeling good about the progress being made after a rough start to the season.
"Yeah, if Columbus winds up winning tonight, then there's a very different feel within the team and then when you look at the table, there's a six-point difference," Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. "So all these six-pointers are valuable and important. We'll have another one next weekend.
"At this point in the year, it's about making progress and growing so that you continue to understand what it's going to take within the year to be the team you want to become," Marsch said. "That's where I look at, regardless of the result, and feel pretty good about the night."