Hans Backe's side started the season well, but the Red Bulls must now work to salvage their season by locating the necessary resolve and shoring up their defensive efforts.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The same frustrating story continues to unfold for a New York team expected to accomplish great things.
The fixture list threw up a game that the reeling Red Bulls needed to win – away to New England – and they instead offered up a terrible first-half display en route to a Dane Richards-inspired 2-2 draw with the Revolution.
For a side with lofty expectations created by a star-studded roster and a tidy start to the season, this Red Bulls unit appears in dire need of something, anything to drag it out of a months-long funk that has produced just two wins since May 7.
“I think it's more just to pick up a win and go from there,” New York coach Hans Backe said about the likely solution after Richards grabbed two goals to spare the visitors' blushes. “We are in desperate need of a win. That can turn everything.”
Any renaissance for these stumbling Red Bulls must start at the back. New York entered the season with one of the league's best back fours on paper – Jan Gunnar Solli on the right, Rafa Marquez and Tim Ream in the middle and Roy Miller on the left – and reinforced its quality by conceding just two goals in the first seven games.
Those halcyon days have long since yielded to jittery moments from week to week as New York has conceded 35 times in its past 19 matches. Injuries, international absences and spotty patches of individual form have led to a significant down turn from that promising opening period. Marquez, in particular, has struggled since returning from a hamstring injury in late July, but the repetitive errors – most notably conceding a staggering 13 goals from set pieces – suggest a pliant core rather than a defiant foundation.
“We're working with the defending, but I think it's a lot, a lot of individual mistakes,” Backe said. “If you look at the back four's way of defending, that's good enough because you can train that. The mistakes will always be there, but we just need to be so much more tougher, sharper in our defending individually.”
New York's proclivity to build deliberately out of the back has caused problems as well. Marquez and Ream have displayed a tendency to dither on the ball and force the perfect pass out of defense and some opposing teams have pressed higher at points to force errors. While both players continue to play an important role in the Red Bulls' possession game (Ream supplied the telling pass for Richards' opener against the Revs, for instance) and supply a rare dimension to a MLS side with their poise and quality in possession, Backe has asked his team to move the ball more directly to exploit other potential advantages on the field.
“We said before Chicago (a 2-2 draw last weekend) that we just need to change it a little bit,” Backe said. “It's been too slow. We need a higher tempo in our passing game.”
New York's midfield bears some of the burden for the lack of cadence. Teemu Tainio's intermittent absences – his influential presence will be sorely missed against Los Angeles next weekend after he picked up two yellow cards against New England – have reduced the required efficiency in central midfield. Mehdi Ballouchy continues to frustrate and infuriate with his tidy touches and ultimately ineffectual performances, while Dax McCarty still needs to settle into the side as he adjusts to a third address in less than a year. All in all, it is a group, like the back four, that has not met expectations recently.
By reducing the number of passes from back to front and shifting the burden to the league's most prolific attack (41 goals scored), the Red Bulls can make use of their advantage in the wide areas – Joel Lindpere and Richards torment opposing fullbacks, though Richards has played up front in the past two games – to break quickly and open up operating room in other areas.
“In the last four halves, we have been good,” Backe said. “We have been much more direct. We have been more of a threat to get in behind the opposition's back four. I'm quite pleased with that because you don't win games with 70 percent of possession. It's only Barcelona doing that.”
No one would confuse the Emirates Cup holders with the reigning European champions, though the primary links between the two clubs will prove crucial as the playoff chase intensifies. Marquez needs to locate the aggressive and imperial form that once made him a staple at the highest levels to shore up the leaky rearguard, while Henry must shrug off his nagging Achilles complaint to resume his talismanic role for a side in desperate need of a central figure to carry it forward.
Pointing to those two integral figures simplifies matters a bit – Luke Rodgers' return up front is also critical with Juan Agudelo still adjusting to first-team football, while several players need to raise their games over the next few months – but the Red Bulls may require a streamlined approach as they face this wholly unanticipated tussle for postseason play.
“We probably need to pick up four or five wins – maybe four wins and a couple of ties – from our last eight games to qualify,” Backe said. “It will be tough, very, very tough.”
New York certainly possesses enough talent to accomplish that task without too much fuss, but it must now produce the resolve and the steel required to see this task through and set about rectifying this lurching season with a lengthy playoff run.
Five Points – Week 23
1. Emphasis on simulation causes problems as officials exercise on-field judgment: The increased emphasis on simulation by the MLS Disciplinary Committee has apparently exerted an impact on referees and their approach to the game. On-field enforcement – as this column has noted time and again – continues to complicate those aims as league executives attempt to strike the right balance between fostering attacking play and stomping out blatant simulation.
Three particularly egregious examples from the weekend at hand:
Non-call on McCarty: New York thought it had won a penalty in the 44th minute when Dax McCarty poked the ball around onrushing New England goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth in the penalty area and Shuttleworth appeared to haul him down. Referee Juan Guzman pointed to the spot at first, but he then consulted with assistant referee Fabio Tovar, reversed his decision and showed McCarty a yellow card for simulation.
Second yellow on Cruz for simulation: FC Dallas midfielder Daniel Cruz picked up his second booking from referee David Gantar in the 56th minute after squeezing between Osvaldo Alonso and Erik Friberg and subsequently sliding to the ground. Friberg made some contact with Cruz to cause the tumble, while Cruz appeared to have the necessary opening to unleash his shot in the next touch or two.
Baca booked for falling over: San Jose midfielder Rafael Baca drew a yellow card for simulation from referee Andrew Chapin in the 54th minute because he lost his balance and stumbled to the ground inside the penalty area after taking a looping touch.
The common thread between all of these incidents: the three involved referees (and, in the specific case of the McCarty incident, one assistant referee, though his primary role involved interjecting doubt into a seemingly valid decision) seemed to forget that a non-call always looms as the potential middle ground between calling a foul and dishing out a booking for simulation. In the Baca and Cruz incidents, the non-call probably made the most sense of all.
Simply put, referees must do a better job of understanding of the nuances of the game to manage such situations during the run of play. Based on the empirical data from this weekend, the balance needs tweaking as the business end of the season arrives.
2. Moor chugs along, sets MLS mark for consecutive full matches by a field player: Colorado defender Drew Moor showed up for Saturday's 2-2 draw against Chivas USA and did exactly what he has done for the past 67 matches: he submitted a solid shift for 90 minutes. By playing his 68th consecutive MLS match without missing a minute, Moor eclipsed the record set by Peter Vermes for most consecutive games completed by a field player.
“It’s definitely an accomplishment that I’m proud of and I want to continue to play as much as I can and help this team to win championships and trophies,” Moor told reporters after the match. “Result aside, I’m extremely excited about tonight, but I wish it would have been in a winning effort.”
(Note: Moor and Vermes share one peculiar bond regarding this record: both players started the streak with one team [Moor in Dallas, Vermes in Colorado] and finished it with another [Vermes in Kansas City]. In Moor's case, he played the first three games with FCD before picking up the streak after he swapped places with Ugo Ihemelu on Aug. 31, 2009.)
3. Keane's movement adds yet another layer to Galaxy attack: It took Robbie Keane just 21 minutes to notch his first MLS goal as the Galaxy dispatched a plucky San Jose side 2-0 on Saturday night. Keane's initial tally showed why he will pose so much danger to MLS defenses: he operates on the shoulder of the last defender, he times his runs pretty well and he slots most of his chances away.
Keane's incisive and instinctual movements were on full display during his Galaxy debut. On a different night, the Ireland captain may have grabbed another goal to really punctuate his debut, but the supplemental tally never arrived despite an ample amount of opportunities during his 72 minutes on the field. Los Angeles manager Bruce Arena declared he was “elated” with Keane's contribution after just one day of training with his new teammates and it's hard to argue with his assessment.
Opposing teams will now face a series of challenges to diminish the Galaxy's potency going forward. The first task, as always, involves closing down David Beckham's space – even as he drifts deeper and deeper to create room for himself – to cut out his steady supply of service. In addition to restricting Beckham's time on the ball, opposing sides will also have to track the movements of Landon Donovan out of midfield and watch Keane carefully as he rides the line. Throw in the other pieces Arena can deploy in and around the penalty area and the Galaxy appears to possess the diverse and prolific attack usually required to mount a lengthy playoff run.
4. Revenge is a dish best offered up as a header, according to Gargan: Chicago defender Dan Gargan did not hide his delight after cinching the Fire's deserved 2-0 victory over Toronto FC with an emphatic second-half header. TFC may have taken a chance on Gargan after he spent the 2009 season with second-division side Puerto Rico, but Gargan clearly focused more on the sting of the trade that sent him to Toyota Park (along with a second-round draft pick in the 2012 SuperDraft in exchange for Dasan Robinson) after the match.
“I can’t really hide the excitement and I’m not going to try to either,” Gargan told reporters after the win snapped the Fire's ten-match winless streak. “It was phenomenal. It felt like a long time coming. It was nice to get it against them and at the time we were pushing for the second one to put the game out of reach.”
(Note: Gargan also used his Twitter feed (@RealDanGargan) to dedicate the goal to fellow TFC discards Nana Attakora, Dwayne De Rosario, Alan Gordon, Nick LaBrocca and Jacob Peterson after the match. Suffice it to say that there are more than a few players around MLS who will not be sending Aron Winter a Christmas card.)
5. Bright start sends Sporting Kansas City into second spot in East: Sporting Kansas City hopped all over D.C. United at the start of Sunday night's 1-0 victory at LIVESTRONG Park and reaped the benefits from its endeavor. United lacked the necessary spark from the start – three games in nine days and Dwayne De Rosario's absence from the starting lineup probably contributed to that initial reticence – and Sporting punished the club for it through Kei Kamara's thumping drive after 19 minutes. D.C. attempted to conjure up an equalizer through Blake Brettschneider before halftime and De Rosario climbed off the bench after the break to some effect, but Sporting provided good value for the three points as it saw out the contest and ultimately leapfrogged Houston and Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference table.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.