Resoundingly Back on Track

Inside six minutes it looked like the New York Red Bulls had everything back on track. Maybe they just needed to go home and feel the pressure of their season ending before it even began. With talk of Hans Backe being on the hot seat and Red Bulls fans about to mutiny, the Harrison home opener was nothing short of a must-win.

Could Kenny Cooper become a solid source of goals for the Red Bulls this season?

Goals, finally some goals: It wasn’t just great to see Thierry Henry back in great form scoring near post goals from tough angles that brought a smile to Red Bulls’ fans. But seeing the big man Kenny Cooper finish off two goals of his own really gave RBNY fans a sense that goals should not be in short stock this season. For any soccer team, to know that you’re always a threat to score under any circumstances is a fabulous feeling. It gives the team way more confidence and more importantly gives the team the ability to make comebacks.

But coming back was never the problem with this team last season. It was slow starts that was their undoing. Well that certainly wasn’t a problem for them Sunday as they jumped out to that incredibly fast two goal lead. Letting Cooper start is great for two reasons. The first is it gives a true big target man for the other players to pass to. Secondly, it allows Thierry Henry to roam freely because the team won’t lack for finishing ability if he decides to go into setup mode. I could definitely see this Henry/Cooper striker partnership developing into one of the better ones the league has to offer.

Return of Designated Player: Mexican International and fan unfavorite Rafa Marquez returned to the starting 11 Sunday and although he was directly responsible for the Rapids lone goal, he played well overall. An the defense around him did as well. Even though it’s great to have an offensive formation, the Red Bulls are far better suited playing two defensive midfielders for two reasons. The first is that their defense could use as much assistance as possible. Both Marquez and Teemu Tainio are solid defensive contributors, especially since by trade Marquez is actually a centerback. But more than that, it gives in the midfield much stronger creativity. The build up play was much more fluid. And that is what really creates goals as much as anything else. Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards, and Dax McCarty are all players I like, but they’re more about effort than creativity. I would much prefer to see Tainio and Marquez as starters than McCarty and either Marquez or Tainio. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see that formation soon.

The return of Rafa Marquez to the defensive midfield seemed to give the Red Bulls better security and creativity.

Change No. 3: Much was made of the three changes in the Red Bull’s starting lineup, but Kenny Cooper’s appearance in the starting 11 was long overdue. Marquez meanwhile was a near certainty to be placed in Teemu Tainio’s spot in the defensive midfield. But the introduction of Wilman Conde into central defense for Stephen Keel was the biggest change. The 29-year old former Chicago Fire and Atlas defender gave a lot more security to the backline. Even Markus Holgersson seemed to play better. Keel is a nice backup but I just don’t see him as being an everyday MLS starter and I’ve said that before. Conde is bigger, faster, and has more experience as a full time regular. I think he and Holgersson could be a nice big tandem for defending those set plays. Make no mistake, of the three lineup changes, Conde will turn out to be the most significant.

There was very little not to like about the Red Bulls’ performance on Sunday. The key is to make sure they grab all three points against the expansion Montreal Impact. Because 1-3 isn’t an acceptable start either.

Playing Like Red Bull#&%!

Unfortunately the star of the Saturday's game was RSL's Argentinian striker Fabian Espindola.

I know that Real Salt Lake is a tough place to play. I know that Jason Kreis’ team is one of the better operated squads in MLS. I know Real has quality players and depth. And I furthermore know that Rio Tinto Stadium has been a nightmare historically for the Red Bulls. But none of that is any excuse for how poorly the Red Bulls performed on Saturday.

After going down 2-0 in the opening game versus FC Dallas, the Red Bulls again found themselves in a big hole with only 30 minutes remaining. It’s tough to win games when you fall behind like that. They don’t even seem to have the attacking prowess they possessed last season. If they don’t fix things soon the whole season could be lost very quickly.

So, without further ado, here are my quick observations about the Red Bulls 2-0 loss at Salt Lake:

A Problem at the top: It seems such a cop-out to blame Hans Backe. I have tried to avoid blaming the head coach for as long as possible. But I simply cannot explain just how bad the Red Bulls have looked for the last six months. What’s worse, is that the Red Bulls problems in these first two games are pretty much the same problems they have had since the middle of last season. So he’s had the homestretch of last season, the playoffs, and an entire offseason to fix the Red Bulls issues. Seemingly none have been solved. Again on Saturday, the Red Bulls earned a lot of cornerkick opportunities. They earned eight in all, but none resulted in a goal. But that’s of no concern compared to what I saw Saturday. The Red Bulls as a team has begun to look lethargic. At least last season they had some hustle.

I don’t know how much control Backe has over player acquisitions, but we better hope that he finds a good third designated player this summer. Provided the Red Bulls are still in it by then.

Henry has shown some good flashes, but has yet to find the back of the net.

Not Done Yet: Despite Thierry Henry‘s inability to find the net, there were two moments in the game that really showed me that the Frenchman has got plenty left in the tank. The first was early in the second half when he was thread a through ball along the left sideline. As he received the ball, he was only about a step ahead of RSL’s right back. Knowing that he was likely to get caught, he slowed down and allowed the defender to catch up. But it was a feign all the way. He then kicked the ball ahead and burned his man in pursuit of the ball. Looks like he still has quite a bit of speed. (I’d call it pace, as soccer people are prone to do, but it just seems overly douchey.)

Whereas the first was a show off Henry’s physical ability, the second was an example that his skills are still quite sharp. Late in the second half, Henry was fed a cross with his back to the goal and a defender between him and the goalie. Instead of trying to head it, or trap it and turn, he jumped and attempted a beautiful bicycle kick. And although it went wide right, it was a thing of beauty and a real example of what Thierry Henry can still pull out of his bag of tricks.

Ryan Meara has played well, but he probably could've done better on this Espindola goal.

The Numbers Do Lie: Rookie goalie Ryan Meara has let in four goals in two games, but I am still very impressed by what I’ve seen from the Larry Bird look-a-like. When you consider that just last year he was playing against mid-tier college soccer talent, to look as confident as he has is reassuring. Yes, he could have made a better attempt on Fabian Espindola‘s breakway shot, but overall I thought he made some athletic plays out there. He still has some nerves to shake out, especially in regards to playing the ball with his feet and distributing the ball. But when he is forced to make saves, he plays instinctually and aggressively.

He has rarely made any mistakes about when and how to come off his line and I’ll never criticize him for it. It’s a very American style of goalkeeping and I think it takes a lot of pressure off the defense. I’m excited to watch this kid grow.

Finally coming along: I have long been a critic of Mehdi Ballouchey, but I must admit that the Moroccan midfielder is growing on me. I don’t know how he’ll fit in when everyone on the roster is healthy. In fact I don’t know if he’ll ever be a consistent starter. But his creativity and hustle were a huge improvement over Victor Palsson‘s defensive holding style. If Palsson’s supposed to be a defensive minded midfielder, then why was the defense so porous Saturday? I’d much rather have Ballouchey out there running around sharing the ball. You can at the least always count on the fact that Ballouchey is busting it out there.

The only question is, with the logjam in midfield for playing time, is Ballouchey better off as a substitute? Looking back on his performances as a sub versus as a starter, I’d have to think so.

Consider Me Unimpressed: It wasn’t just Victor Palsson’s performance I was disappointed with. After the way Tim Ream played last season for the Red Bulls, which was far worse than NYRB fans cared to admit, I never thought I’d say I missed him. But I do. It’s interesting that last year’s primary centerback pairing of Ream and Rafa Marquez were so maligned. Because this season, the centerback pairing is even worse. Markus Holgersson has yet to look comfortable and Stephen Keel may at best be a fill-in type player at best. Last season Keel played OK toward the end of the season, but he only got to play after Marquez was moved to midfield and after Carlos Mendes and Chris Albright had been used first. He really just doesn’t see up to being a full time starter.

Can the return of Designated Player Rafa Marquez settle down the defense?

The first goal was the direct fault of Keel and Holgersson because their communication broke down. They allowed Fabian Espindola an easy breakaway toward the net on a simple through pass. Then, I blame them again on the second goal. After Ryan Meara once again made a good and aggressive save, no one on the Red Bulls was able to clear the goal out of the box. It was an immensely frustrating series of events. The play was a little hectic, sure, but you have to expect that your centerbacks will clean up your goalkeeper’s saves.

Let’s hope that that it can be fixed. Which brings me to my next point…

Will the return of the other DP help? Unlike most Red Bull fans, I am holding out hope that Rafael Marquez’s presence will raise the play of the team. He stated prior to the season that he was going to let all his play do the talking this year. I believe he will follow through on that promise and will further be very successful. Marquez is a hothead, but he is also a professional. He did not enjoy being humiliated last season. For the first part of the season at least, I expect him to play well and be well behaved. The only real question is how does Hans Backe play him when he returns and how does that effect the formation and lineup?

So, overall it has been nothing less than a disastrous first two games. Let’s hope the home opener goes more smoothly.

Yes, I Love the Red Bulls.

Thierry Henry always does his best thinking upon the rooftops of New York when he's wearing cargo shorts.

That’s right, it’s that time of year once again. Today, on the debut of MLS on NBC Sports the 2012 season finally kicked off and I couldn’t be happier. Although I’m busy with March Madness brackets and fantasy baseball drafts, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the team from Harrison’s first game down in Frisco, Texas for weeks.

I know American soccer fans are divided on their interest in MLS, but I think even the snobbiest of soccer fans are beginning to wear down and have picked an MLS team to root for. I think all USSoccer fans recognize the importance of the league in developing a deep pool of American football talent.

Well despite the fact that don’t employ all that many Americans, I am a passionate about the Red Bulls. Last season I began watching MLS out of curiosity, but it wasn’t long before I was rushing home from studying for the bar to catch RBNY games or any other key MLS matchup that I could find on television.

On Sunday, New York played a team in which they played some very good games last season. In fact, the last time these two teams played New York came away with a 2-0 road victory in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs. It was certainly great to see the Red Bulls playing a team with two of my favorite players: Brek Shea, who is quickly becoming our country’s best player and centerback George John who came in as a substitute in the second half.

So, without further ado, here are my quick observations from RBNY’s first game versus FC Dallas.

Roll Call. Although there are plenty of new faces to learn about this season, there were still more than enough holdovers on the field Sunday. Of course, the captain Thierry Henry was back in the lineup constantly sitting back in the midfield as he did the second half of last season.  Roy Miller and Jan Gunnar Solli were still protecting the defensive flanks, although they were pretty quiet Sunday. The midfield as a whole was pretty much the same as it was a year ago. Dax McCarty was still running all over the field with that motor of his that just never seems to run out. Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards were guarding the left and right touch lines respectively and Teemu Tainio was still playing defensive midfield.

If you assume that New York underachieved last season, then the fact that the team is relatively stagnant shouldn’t be that big a deal. We just have to hope that they learn how to play with each other better. I still contend that the team’s mojo was sent awry when the team lost seven players to Gold Cup duty. Of course, despite finally getting to see Juan Agudelo in the lineup, we now have to wave goodbye to him as will be busy with Olympic qualification. I truly believe that this group feels embarrassed about last season, including Mexican international Rafa Marquez. With the addition of third designated player in the summer I have full confidence the Red Bulls will be one of the league’s top teams by seasons end. At least that’s what I’m trying to convince myself of for the time being.

If Hans Backe looks disappointed, imagine how Red Bulls fans must be feeling.

For all the new, there was plenty of old. It’s amazing after the Red Bulls’ disgraceful display on set pieces last year that Hans Backe wouldn’t have tried everything humanly possible to make sure the team improved in that area. Yet, despite nine corner kicks, the Bulls came up empty on each and every single one of them.

Worse yet, although Zack Loyd‘s goal to break the scoreless tie didn’t come directly off of a set piece, it was scored off a short series of events triggered by a set kick. “Sigh” groans the frustrated Red Bulls fan.

I know it’s only one game, but unfortunately I saw many things during this game that made me think there was very little difference from the way in which they played last season. Let’s hope in a couple weeks that I’ll be proven wrong.

Aren’t anchors supposed to be sturdy? The 26 year old Swedish defender Markus Hulgerson made his debut Sunday for RBNY and it wasn’t ideal. I understand that there’s going to a period of adjustment and I realize that his fellow centerback Stephen Keel is more a backup than a starter, but he was caught off his mark a couple times. I like that he’s big and tall. That should assist with the defending of set pieces. But like I said Keel is not a starter and I imagine if Marquez will be playing more midfield than defense, it could take a while for the back line to become settled.

Certainly Hulgerson has potential, but it seemed like it was Tainio more than anyone that was cleaning up the big mistakes. It’s too bad the Red Bulls lost Tim Ream, it’s going to be hard for Hulgerson to settle into a new league without an established veteran beside him. I have a feeling Marquez will eventually be playing in the back as it will allow the Red Bulls to maximize their talent at all 11 positions.

Unfortunately, this is the image of the game I'll be remembering.

The score alone doesn’t discourage me. Obviously goalkeeper was a big problem for the Bulls last season. At first it was Bouna Coundoul. Then the Bulls had to waste a DP spot on aging German goalkeeper Frank Rost. Neither really worked out exceptionally well.

So this season, the Red Bulls went out and drafted a young Fordham goalie in the second round of the 2012 MLS Superdraft. I know it’s only one game, but he looks really good. I didn’t feel that either of the goals were caused by his mistakes. He actually had a great save to prevent a potential third goal. I love how good he is at coming off his line and attacking the ball as it comes in. It’s always nice to have home grown prospects and Meara should be a good one. It’s nice to know that not only will goalie not be a weakness, but we could be seeing the development of a good young player in the process.

Where are the goals coming from? Since Thierry Henry’s arrival in Harrison, fans have figured that he would simply run circles around MLS and that he’d spend his time lighting up the scoreboard. Last season for stretches, he did look like that. But late in the season and again on Sunday, he’s so often required to spend so much time in midfield that he’s not in great scoring position. I know he’s trying to be a team player by drifting back to create opportunities for others, but I think he needs to sit up top more. He’s the team’s best striker by far, so he should be finishing goal scoring opportunities not setting them up. Henry has to trust that Richards, Lindpere, McCarty and whoever else can set up scoring opportunities for him.

The good news is, the Red Bulls seem to have found a really good player in Kenny Cooper. The former Portland Timber is a big, strong, aggressive finisher and should pay huge dividends for the Red Bulls, especially as Juan Agudelo disappears for the next month. Perhaps if he had started in this game as was expected New York would have done better than a 2-1 loss. His goal with 12 minutes left was a great display of effort and truly showed a knack for getting the ball on net. His presence is really the one possible dynamic difference for this team. I’m looking forward to following his performance throughout the year.

So, now we have a full game in the bag and another season that I’m really looking forward to. I plan on being a great place for Red Bulls analysis and I’m hoping to do game break downs on every game throughout the season. Their next game, again on the road versus Real Salt Lake should be another good test. Hopefully next Saturday they will emerge with a victory.