Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ashes to Ashes: Red Bulls Hit an All-Time Low

RSL Celebrates, RBNY Engages in Finger-Pointing (Photo by Dan Dickinson)
"Get behind the boys tonight and drive them onto victory. COYRB!" That's how I concluded my match preview yesterday. How naive! Hours later, I would find myself alongside thousands of other fans booing the Red Bulls off the pitch at halftime as they went to the locker room trailing 3-0 early to Real Salt Lake, victims of their own ineptitude.

New Yorkers can be notoriously hard on underperforming teams, and perhaps booing wasn't quite what the team needed with its confidence so fragile, but after a season full of embarrassments it's only natural that emotions boiled over last night in Harrison. The 2011 Red Bulls, favored by many to challenge for MLS Cup, have become the league's laughing stock once again and long suffering fans are fed up. It certainly didn't help that even as RBNY melted down in front of our eyes Chris Heck and his marketing team were busy digging into our pockets to fund next year's version of the Keystone Cops.

The Red Bulls' defensive struggles this season are well documented, but the clean sheet in Dallas last Saturday provided a reason to hope that the team had finally turned a corner. Not so fast. Rafa Marquez stepped back into his familiar central defensive role alongside Tim Ream on Wednesday, and the results weren't pretty, to say the least.

Despite looking feisty early and winning a few corners, the Red Bulls found themselves trailing the visitors before ten minutes had passed. An Andy Williams corner found Alvaro Saborio, who was poorly marked in the Red Bulls' 18-yard box and made no mistake on an open header. Just like that New York had put itself into a hole it would never climb out of. Less than five minutes later, RSL doubled its lead when Tim Ream mishandled a back pass from Jan Gunnar Solli, failed to communicate with goalkeeper Frank Rost, and allowed Fabian Espindola to score a comical goal.  Worse than Bouna's blunder last year in Los Angeles or Sutton's this season in Seattle? You be the judge.

Shortly thereafter, Real Salt Lake put the match out of reach for good. A Collen Warner pass split the center of New York's defense in two, Espindola ran onto the ball and made no mistake, putting it beyond the reach of the helpless Rost. If Tim Ream was wholly at fault for the second goal, he shared the blame on the third with Marquez, who remained rooted to the spot.

The only bright spot for Red Bulls fans was a somewhat livelier second half, which featured a Goal of the Week candidate by the ever hard-working Joel Lindpere. The lovely semi-bicycle kick came just moments after the Estonian cracked a shot off the underside of Nick Rimando's crossbar that just barely failed to cross the line. Even after that, RSL was content to sit back and soak up pressure, knowing that they were still sitting on a healthy advantage.

Throughout the match, Red Bull fans poured their frustrations out in a chorus of boos, aimed primarily at Marquez. Unfair? Perhaps. After all, Ream put in one of his worst performances of the season, while Marquez was simply mediocre. Then again, Ream has built up credit with fans due to a steady 2010 and several excellent performances this year (Los Angeles and DC at home come to mind). Apart from a stunning free kick bomb last year in Toronto you would be at pains to name a single match where Marquez demonstrated that he is deserving of even half of his designated player salary, which dwarfs RSL's entire payroll (and Ream's paltry annual payout). What hurts even more is that the Red Bulls are on the hook for two more years of Rafa. Ouch.

Dave Martinez at Empire of Soccer spoke with Marquez after the match, and the frustrated Mexican was quick to throw his teammates under the bus, Ream especially. Marquez's outburst is extraordinary in a league where matters like this are usually dealt with in house. It's hard to see how the relationship between Marquez and his teammates can be repaired, much less his relationship with RBNY supporters. If Hans Backe decides to start him again on Saturday, #4 will get an ugly reception. You can bank on it. How he reacts is anyone's guess.

Amazingly, the Red Bulls' playoff hopes were not damaged too severely by other results around the league last night. DC United could only draw with Chivas USA down at RFK, thanks to a pair of goals by (yup) Juan Pablo Angel. Saturday's opponent Portland, meanwhile, drew 1-1 with San Jose at Jeld-Wen. As hard as it is to believe, RBNY still has a decent shot of making the postseason if they manage another couple of wins between now and late October. But they'll have to play much better than they did last night and find a way to stop killing themselves with mental errors and infighting. How likely is that?

Viper will be along shortly with his full video report and comments.
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