BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – As Thierry Henry laid on the Red Bull Arena turf three weeks ago clutching his hamstring, an audible gasp could be heard in the stadium from fans who understandably feared just what losing Henry could mean to a team already beset by injuries.
Already missing multiple starters due to injuries (and Rafa Marquez to a three-game suspension) when Henry went down, the Red Bulls looked like a team set to collapse without so many key players. Only a week earlier, the Red Bulls were embarrassed by D.C. United in a 4-1 thrashing at RFK Stadium. Without Henry, things seemed destined to get worse.
Rather than crumble, however, the Red Bulls have flourished; riding on the outstanding goalkeeping of rookie Ryan Meara, the revitalized play of Dax McCarty, the opportunistic finishing of Kenny Cooper and the surprisingly steady play of a reserve-laden backline to rattle off four straight victories in a three-week span.
Surprisingly, the New York Red Bulls sit in first place. How a team missing their best forward (Henry), midfielder (Marquez) and defender (Wilman Conde) has put together such an improbable rally is a testament to the work of manager Hans Backe.
With some considerable help from Meara, who has taken over as the early front-runner for MLS rookie of the year, the team's patchwork defense bent, but didn't break and shut out New England, Los Angeles and Houston. Saturday, the Union exposed some of New York's defensive flaws, but this time it was the offense's turn to step up.
The Red Bulls put three goals past a Union defense that had not allowed multiple goals just once in its past six matches. Cooper, who is enjoying his own career revival, delivered the game-winning goal by beating Philly goalkeeper Zac MacMath via a Rafael Marquez long ball and notching his ninth goal of the season.
How seriously should we take this Red Bulls team? You can make the argument that the schedule has been soft. New England, Los Angeles and Philadelphia aren't exactly world beaters these days, while the Houston Dynamo rested some starters ahead of the opening of their new stadium just three days later.
All that said, the fact remains that New York has gotten results without several key starters. Backe has given some key backups some important playing time, and the results have to be seen as confidence building for a team that suddenly looks to have much more depth than originally thought.
It may be a stretch to say the Red Bulls are on par with league powers like Seattle and Real Salt Lake, but they just might be able to hold on to first place for a while. Games against Montreal and Chivas USA are up next on the schedule, and the team expects to have Henry back in a week.
The only bad news the Red Bulls have really faced during this hot streak is the embarrassing arrest of Wilman Conde, who on Saturday morning was charged with aggravated assault of a police officer he allegedly pushed after being found intoxicated at 5:30 a.m. when police responded to a noise complaint where Conde was staying.
Conde's arrest, coupled with his lack of playing time due to injuries, has made his signing one of the few disappointments of a season that has turned around after a shaky start. That disappointment has been made more manageable by the play of reserve defenders like Stephen Keel and Tyler Ruthven.
The big question for New York going forward will be how Backe keeps things rolling as other key players return from injury. Once Henry and Teemu Tainio return, there will be players forced back to the bench and Backe will have some very tough decisions to make regarding playing time. That is a far cry from what Backe faced last year, when his bench let him down time and time again.
Now, with the team's reserves having shown they can produce if called upon, and projected starters realizing they have real competition for playing time, Backe should have the components for a season-long run of success.
That isn't something many would have expected from the Red Bulls just three weeks ago, but thanks to a bench that stepped up when called upon, and a rookie goalkeeper who is playing like anything but a rookie, the Red Bulls have made the unlikely transition from seemingly doomed to a team capable of putting together a special season.
THIS WEEK'S BEST IN MLS
Player of the Week: Kenny Cooper . The Red Bulls striker has picked up the slack in the absence of injured star Thierry Henry, scoring the game-winning goal in both of New York's wins this week. The game-winner vs. Houston was a bit of a gift from the Dynamo defense, and Philly goalkeeper Zac MacMath could have done better on Cooper's winner vs. the Union, but Cooper still gets the credit for capitalizing on defensive mistakes and scoring the goals that pushed New York into first place in the East.
Rookie of the Week: Ryan Meara . A very strong argument can be made for Meara deserving Player of the Week, not just Rookie of the Week, honors for his outstanding play in wins vs. Houston and Philadelphia. Both times, he stepped up big with key late saves to preserve victories.
Team of the Week: Chicago Fire . The Red Bulls were the only team to post two wins this week, but the Fire came away with four points from a brutal set of matches against Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City.
Comeback of the Week: Columbus Crew . Trailing FC Dallas by a goal in the second half, the Crew rallied with a pair of second-half goals, including a Sebastian Miranda winner to lift Columbus to a sorely-needed victory.