NYON – The New York Red Bulls have sleepwalked through a large part of the 2011 MLS season, but on Tuesday night they were able to remind us just how well they can play, and why they are still a team to worry about as the MLS playoffs approach.
It may have been a win against a jet-lagged and severely short-handed Los Angeles Galaxy side, yet the Red Bulls' 2-0 triumph on Tuesday was still impressive and important, offering the type of confidence boost that just might help the underachievers finally realize their potential.
Fresh air: The New York Red Bulls might have saved their season with a victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy on Tuesday night. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
Rafael Marquez symbolized the Red Bulls night the best. Having struggled badly since returning from the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and having earned a one-game suspension by the team for criticizing teammates publicly after having been booed off the field for his latest poor showing, Marquez responded in his first game back at Red Bull Arena with his best game in months. He gave more effort, delivered crisp passes and looked more like the player New York expected when it made him a Designated Player in the summer of 2010.
It was a good night for all of New York's Designated Players, as Thierry Henry notched his league-leading 14th goal of the season by running onto a Marquez pass and delivering a beautiful chip over Donovan Ricketts to make the score 2-0. German goalkeeper Frank Rost was solid in net, recording four saves in his third shutout in five matches.
All of a sudden, the Red Bulls have gone from woeful underachievers in danger of missing the playoffs, to a team that stands two points out of first place in the East and five points clear of playoff jeopardy (though D.C. United still has two games in hand on New York).
The win comes just in time for both the club, and for head coach Hans Backe, who is very much on the hot seat. In fact, sources tell FOX Soccer that the Red Bulls have already begun making preliminary inquiries into potential coaching candidates to replace Backe, who is in just his second season in charge.
Whether Backe stays or goes after this season will likely depend largely on if the Red Bulls qualify for the playoffs and make a run. Failure to make the playoffs would almost certainly cost Backe his job and would also threaten the future of Sporting Director Erik Soler, the man who hired Backe in 2010 and who constructed the team with such questionable moves as the deal that sent Dwayne De Rosario to D.C. United for Dax McCarty.
The Red Bulls can count themselves lucky as the other teams in the East have failed to capitalize on their struggles. Sporting Kansas City started the season in a deep hole before climbing from last place to first place. Houston, Philadelphia and Columbus have all hit slumps that have kept them within range of New York while the Red Bulls went eight matches without a win, a span of more than two months.
The slump was a byproduct of a variety of issues. The decline of Marquez's form, along with Tim Ream's struggles, led to a defense that looked nowhere near as good as the unit that began the season with five shutouts in its first six matches. The team's lack of depth led to heavy workloads and ultimately injuries to Luke Rodgers, Teemu Tainio and Jan Gunnar Solli. Those injuries exposed the team's weak bench, and the ensuing slump threatened to leave New York out of the playoffs.
Luckily for the Red Bulls, they had a 4-1-2 start to build on, and a record-setting number of draws to keep New York on the fringes of the playoff race.
Now, with the team getting healthier, and with key players like Rodgers and Tainio back and playing regularly, the Red Bulls have hit a good run, with Tuesday's win pushing New York to 3-1-1 in its past five matches, with three shutouts.
That stretch has pulled the Red Bulls to within two points of first-place Sporting Kansas City, and now New York can ensure a Top 3 finish in the East, and the automatic place in the Eastern Conference semifinals that comes with it, with wins against Sporting KC and Philadelphia in its final two matches. At the very least, the recent run has helped New York solidify its hold on one of the final wild card playoff spots.
That wasn't supposed to be the goal for this Red Bulls team though. These Red Bulls were supposed to be a challenger for a Supporters Shield and MLS Cup favorite. They were supposed to be one of the most exciting teams in the league, a team capable of selling out Red Bull Arena on a regular basis.
Aside from a very strong start, and some random flashes of brilliance, the Red Bulls have fallen well short of that goal, and have been, in many ways, the most disappointing team in MLS.
They can still save their season though. In a league where ten teams make the playoffs, and in an Eastern Conference that lacks a true powerhouse like the Los Angeles Galaxy or Seattle Sounders, the Red Bulls could still get hot at just the right time and make the championship run many believed they could make when the season began.
There is reason to believe again after the team's recent run, and Tuesday's performance was the clearest evidence yet that New York may be hitting its stride. The defense played well, with the help of Marquez's move from center back to central midfield, and the attack looked very dangerous against a back-line that featured three-fourths of the toughest defense in the league.
It will take more games like Tuesday's if New York is going to turn the 2011 season into something other than a failure. If the Red Bulls can stay healthy, if the forward combo of Henry and Rodgers keep playing well together, and if Marquez can play at a high level consistently, the Red Bulls will suddenly become the team nobody wants to play come playoff time.
But if the Red Bulls revert to the team that struggled so badly this summer, we could find ourselves looking at yet another disappointing year in New York and another off-season of turnover and uncertainty.
SBI MLS Player of the Week
Counting Tuesday night's clutch effort in helping the Seattle Sounders lift the U.S. Open Cup, Fredy Montero grabs Player of the Week honors after also scoring a pair of goals in Seattle's 2-0 victory against New England on Saturday. While Marco Pappa also deserved consideration for his hat-trick against Real Salt Lake a week ago, the stiffest challenge to Montero's honor was teammate Osvaldo Alonso, who scored both goals in Seattle's CONCACAF Champions League comeback draw vs. CD Comunicaciones on Sept. 27, and provided the insurance goal in Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup triumph.
SBI MLS Rookie of the Week
Michael Farfan continued his impressive run of form in the Philadelphia Union starting lineup. The midfielder pulled off a beautiful hurdle and shot goal to help the Union defeat D.C. United in a pivotal victory, then turned in another strong showing in Philadelphia's 1-1 draw vs. Chivas USA. While his recent run might not be enough to put him into the MLS Rookie of the Year conversation, he is starting to look like he could be the rookie who makes the biggest impact when the post-season begins.
SBI MLS Team of the Week
The Seattle Sounders take the honors yet again, this time for making history with a third straight U.S. Open Cup title, as well as a victory against New England over the weekend. Throw in the clinching of the first MLS spot in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and the Sounders had about as good a week as you can have without actually winning the MLS Cup title.