Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Winless in May, Red Bulls Face a Tough Road Ahead

Rodgers: Early Season Team MVP
Having finished May without a single victory (0-1-4), the Red Bulls now turn their attention to the part of the schedule every fan has been dreading since Opening Day. You could argue that the team has been the victim of some bad fortune and questionable calls (*ahem* Akpan), but as the saying goes you make your own luck. The inability of Backe's men to make their dominance in time of possession count for more is killing them at the moment, as is their tendency to give away cheap opening goals and sloppy penalties.

RBNY has been hit harder than any other MLS club by international call-ups and will be without five key players - Juan Agudelo, Dwayne DeRosario, Rafa Marquez, Tim Ream and Dane Richards - for as much as a month. The Red Bulls have seen their position atop the Eastern Conference usurped by Philadelphia, and if not for a ton of draws this past weekend they could have found themselves even further down the standings. They get the benefit of kicking off the Gold Cup period with two home games before a daunting four in a row on the road, but they are two games against conference opponents that traditionally give the Red Bulls fits - Columbus and New England. Moreover, neither opponent will be particularly hard hit by international call-ups, while New York will be without approximately half of its starting XI and both of its starting center backs.

So is there any reason to suspect that RBNY might break its recent streak of mediocrity and actually get through this difficult period relatively intact? Let's look at the pros and cons:

First the Pros:
  • Luke Rodgers and Thierry Henry will likely be paired up again on Saturday and they are on a scoring tear at the moment. When Rodgers is not chipping in with a key assist, he's scoring a big goal. After starting the season looking out of sorts, Henry has come alive. Both Rodgers and Henry are in the league's top five in goals. On the other hand, when given an opportunity to shine, Juan Agudelo has not made a strong case that he should be starting in place of either veteran. For all the hand-wringing over Gold Cup departures, RBNY will still have its best forward pairing available during this period, barring injuries.
  • Stephen Keel has done a fine job when called upon. He doesn't have the ability to pass out of the back that Tim Ream and Rafa Marquez can offer, but he is good in the air and does not make rash decisions. Carlos Mendes, who played as a fullback against Vancouver and gave away a penalty, should be shifted back to his more familiar central defensive role, assuming he recovers from the knock he picked up at Empire Field. So while the departures of Ream and Marquez will hurt, there is at least some experienced cover.
  • Greg Sutton has made some big saves. His kick save against Eric Hassli on Saturday was simply magnificent, and he nearly got his fingertips to the first half penalty as well. If he can avoid giving up cheap rebounds, Sutton is probably the best option going into June, with Bouna Coundoul a perfectly capable replacement.
  • The rookies and squad players will finally get a chance to show what they can do. In any season, there will be periods when younger players are called on to contribute. Would you rather have players like Matt Kassel and Austin da Luz getting their first taste of MLS action in June or in October? This may be a blessing in disguise.
Now the Cons:
  • During pre-season there was a lot written and said about the depth of the Red Bulls squad, but when you look at it now the cupboard is mostly bare. Carl Robinson is injured, Tony Tchani and Danleigh Borman have departed to Toronto, Brian Nielsen seems no closer to fitness than he has ever been and the Red Bulls' reserve team just got thrashed 6-1 by Columbus Crew's second string, with Sacir Hot and Tyler Lassiter getting burned repeatedly. If Keel or Mendes is out for any significant period of time, things could get interesting, and not in a good way.
  • Henry cannot seem to stay fit and does not travel well, if at all. TH14 has missed the last two road trips to Houston and Vancouver. Can his body make it through the rigors of a four game road trip that includes two matches in the Pacific Northwest on Field Turf? My Magic 8-Ball says "doubtful."
  • Backe's unwillingness to make tactical substitutions until very late in the match remains a problem. To his credit, he rolled the dice a bit more against the Whitecaps, but that was at least partly forced by the Carlos Mendes injury. 
  • Opponents smell blood. Every team in the league seems to raise its level of intensity by a notch or two against RBNY. Because of the lopsided possession numbers in the Red Bulls' favor, opponents also understand that set pieces and penalties are their two best avenues for scoring. A depleted New York squad must be like a red rag to a bull for divers, cheats and fakers. Refs will need to be strong and use good judgment, and we all know how likely that is in MLS.
There's still reason to believe that the Red Bulls could emerge from June at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but they'll need to catch a few breaks and minimize individual errors if that's going to happen. Over to you, Hans.
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