HARRISON, N.J. — Less than four days separated the New York Red Bulls two matches this week, and they couldn't have gone much differently. Not for the Red Bulls, and definitely not for Alejandro Romero Gamarra.
On Tuesday, the Red Bulls endured a frustrating night, failing to find the goal they needed to keep their CONCACAF Champions League hopes alive, settling for elimination at the hands of Chivas Guadalajara. By the end of that night, Romero Gamarra was irate, nearly coming to blows with a Chivas player. His emotions boiling over on a night that saw him come off the bench rather than start.
Four days later, on a sunny Saturday at Red Bull Arena, the New York had no such trouble finding the net, with Bradley Wright-Phillips needing five minutes to open the scoring. Romero Gamarra — known as Kaku — started and scored a beautiful goal of his own. As his man of the match-worthy performance ended in the 82nd minute, Romero Gamarra walked to the Red Bulls bench and shared a big hug with head coach Jesse Marsch. The kind of hug that illustrated just what an emotional week it had been for both men, as well as the kind of hug that seemed to suggest they both believe more good days like Saturday are in their future.
"There's a reason we went out and got him and we were so keen on getting specifically him," Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams told Goal. "Any time you lose a player like Sacha (Kljestan), who creates so many chances, you obviously have to fill that void with a special player and Kaku is really that player."
Marsch was also pleased to see the 23-year-old put together the a star showing for the club.
"This was Kaku's best game by a mile," Marsch said at his post-match press conference. "He's worked hard to try to understand tactically what we're trying to get out of him. He's worked hard to understand now what the reactions are, where he's needed, what kind of final plays. Even on Thursday, we used to kind of put him in situations where he could make more final plays in training and I think it created clarity for him.
Kaku's performance likely led to some fans questioning why Marsch didn't start him against Chivas in a match where the Red Bulls needed goals, but the manager stood by his decision to bring his talented playmaker off the bench on Tuesday.
"In these high-level games, for us the tactics are often the most important thing," Marsch said. "And in some ways, I didn't think it would be fair to Kaku or the team to put him in situations where he might not be ready for it.
"Now, when you see tonight, of course, everyone is going to say: 'Well, he should have played on Tuesday,'" Marsch went on. "That game was a very different game. Very different game. It was a game about them locking in on us, not having any space, about mobility, about movement up top. And it's not to say that Kaku couldn't have fit in there and that we couldn't have helped him do certain things. But we made that decision based on what we thought that game would require, and if he came in late, there might be more space and he might be able to make some plays and he almost did."
Kaku isn't one of those people second-guessing Marsch's decision, at least not publicly. The soft-spoken midfielder made it clear he understood the decision and bought into it completely.
"I think the coach had a good reason to have me come off the bench," Kaku told Goal. "In that game I was going to make more of a difference coming off the bench and the coach's thinking was justified because of how things went."
Kaku also admitted that his frustrations at the end of Tuesday's match were strictly about his disappointment with the result, and the team's inability to find a goal.
"A bit of both," Kaku said. "I'm someone who fights for everything I play for. I felt like we played a great game, the ball just didn't want to go in. We wanted to win that game, but I feel like the best is yet to come."
Fellow midfielder Adams pointed to Kaku's work ethic as proof that his frustrations were now at the club or the manager.
"When he talks about his frustration, he's more frustrated with himself and how he can get better than specifically the tactics or something else," Adams told Goal. "He's so willing to do the workload for this team, and that's something that, when you try to get creative players, they don't always want to do the work, but he's willing to do the work."
Kaku's performance on Saturday was more of what was expected when the Red Bulls made him a multi-million dollar acquisition. His combination of playmaking ability as well as his high work rate make him the dream attacking midfielder for Marsch's system. However, a series of delays in his transfer saw Argentine miss a large part of the Red Bulls' preseason, and it has taken some time to see him at his best.
While Marsch sees Kaku starting to round into form, he knows the young midfielder is still learning.
"One of the things we've talked to him about is not feeling like he just has to make plays," Marsch told Goal. "That the most important thing about being here is just integrating into what we do. Once he figures out the system, the rest will come with ease because he has those gifts."
"Is it time to take the handcuffs off? The answer is yes," Marsch said. "Now it's time to let him go and understand and allow him to really fit into the group, and today I think he showed everyone, including himself, that he's going to be a really good fit here and he's going to be a big player here."