Monday, August 8, 2011

Real Salt Lake 3 Red Bulls 0: A New Low

Thierry Henry: A Picture of Frustration
It's getting harder and harder to envision the New York Red Bulls as a playoff team, much less a contender for the 2011 MLS Cup. A season that began with the ridiculously grand vision of a Supporters Shield now seems destined to end in bitter disappointment for fans. The latest evidence: Saturday's humiliating 3-0 defeat at the hands of Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium.

It's not so much the fact that the Red Bulls failed to get a point from this very tricky fixture. Sure, RSL was missing some key players, including Jamison Olave and Javier Morales, and they were coming off consecutive losses to Columbus and Kansas City. But as I mentioned in the match preview I wrote for Once a Metro, you'd need to go back to 2007 to find the last time RSL had lost three in a row. Even if New York had gained some confidence from their Emirates Cup victory and overall solid play in London, Rio Tinto remains one of the tougher nuts to crack in MLS and RSL still has one of the league's most balanced and deepest squads.

No, the real disappointment comes from the fact that the Red Bulls were never even at the races on Saturday. Despite assurances from the likes of Dax McCarty that RBNY players and coaching staff understood the importance of the game and the need to start getting results, there was precious little fire in the belly and no sense that the club had prepared adequately for this fixture. That's inexcusable, when you consider that the Red Bulls had an entire week to watch tape, work on tactics and set out their strategy. RSL, meanwhile, had played on Wednesday - on the road. Yet there was only one squad that had their heads, bodies and minds in the game, and it wasn't the visitors.

The memo has clearly gone around MLS about how to defeat RBNY. Apply high pressure on defenders to force mistakes and disrupt the link between the back line and midfield. Maximize the number of corners and set pieces to capitalize on the Red Bulls' weakness in the air and poor marking. Swarm Henry every time he receives the ball, especially now that Luke Rodgers' movement and speed are out of the equation and Henry has started dropping deep again. The fact that Hans Backe has been unable to devise a strategy or formation to counter this game plan is a massive indictment of his skill as a manager, as is his stubborn refusal to use substitutions. Then again, when you've traded away assets for quick fixes, options are limited. The Red Bulls clearly went "all in" on 2011, and look set to walk away from the poker table penniless.

Saturday's errors are too numerous to catalog here in their entirety, but include multiple misplaced passes, unforced errors and turnovers. Tim Ream, whose continued call ups for the US National Team are beginning to look rather dubious, had a nightmare on RSL's first goal, losing Nat Borchers on a corner kick.  Frank Rost, who eventually left the game with a strained quad (as did Jan Gunnar Solli - yikes), looked old and slow on Real's second, a Luis Gil strike from near the top of the 18-yard box. Dax McCarty, brought in to solidify play in the center of the park, was sacrificed at halftime after another lackluster performance. His midfield partner Mehdi Ballouchy was his usual anonymous self.

At one point Henry could be seen having an animated discussion with Backe on the touchline. It's becoming painfully apparent that if the entire team hasn't already lost confidence in the manager it's biggest superstar certainly has. That can't be a good sign for Backe's job security.

To compound the misery of this disastrous performance, the man the Red Bulls traded away for McCarty - Dwayne De Rosario - poured in a hat trick for his new club DC United. That transaction is looking more and more dubious by the day.

Next up for the Red Bulls: the Chicago Fire, who just let in four against the league's weakest club. If people are placing bets on the Red Bulls waltzing to victory, however, they need their heads examined. No opponent should be considered an easy mark for a team as badly coached and as tactically clueless as RBNY. Underachievement beckons.
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