Friday, February 24, 2012

Reto Del Crap: Red Bulls Miserable in 0-0 Draw vs. Pumas

Henry: Shut Down by Pumas
I'm not sure if it says more about me as a fan than it does about the club I support, but I found myself yelling at my TV less than midway through the first half of the Red Bulls' "meaningless" Thursday night 0-0 draw against Mexico's UNAM Pumas, played at Chase Field in Phoenix. After a mostly disastrous 2011 that saw RBNY go on a long winless streak through the middle of the season, I was looking for a sign - however faint - that Hans Backe might have found some tactical solution to his team's defensive ineptitude and lack of creativity in midfield.

Alas, many of the demons that tortured fans in 2011 reared their ugly head on Thursday night. Rafa Marquez, who Backe had promised would play in midfield this season rather than as a central defender, was being used as a de facto sweeper behind the nervous-looking tandem of Stephen Keel and Markus Holgersson. Teemu Tainio, clearly out of shape and off the pace, provided nothing but fouls, misplaced passes and chippy play before being substituted at half time for Dax McCarty. In the absence of any kind of central playmaker, and with Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere being neutralized on the wings, Thierry Henry was once again forced to drop deep to collect the ball and start attacks. He was able to connect with Kenny Cooper only rarely, and the Red Bulls spent long stretches of the match stuck in their own end, unable to advance the ball past midfield with the exception of long, aimless passes or Ryan Meara goal kicks. The less said about Roy Miller the better. It's hard to understand how a left back can provide so little going forward and yet find himself out of position defensively time and time again.

The only bright spot for the Red Bulls may have been the play of Meara. Though the rookie keeper didn't quite manage to pull off the kind of spectacular saves that Jeremy Vuolo did against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, his positioning was mostly solid, and he did keep a clean sheet despite a host of chances for a mostly first choice Pumas team whose season is already well underway.

That last point is important, of course. The Red Bulls were no match for their opponents in terms of fitness. And with the entire reserve team having played on Wednesday, Backe was unable to make the kind of wholesale substitutions that Pumas did. Still, apart from a fairly bright opening ten minutes, RBNY was dominated and fortunate not to concede a goal or more.

So, there's a lot of work to be done and there are a lot of questions still to be answered:
  • In the absence of the magical third designated player, how are the Red Bulls going to find a way to play the kind of "on the deck" style that Backe has said he prefers? Starting two defensive midfielders in front of the back four may be conducive to maintaining defensive shape, but it will do nothing for the attack. Lofting aimless long balls to Cooper and Henry is a recipe for disaster.
  • What is Marquez's role? Is he meant to be springing attacks from midfield, or cleaning up after others? How does Backe square what we saw on Thursday with his promises that Rafa would not be played as a defender this season?
  • Will Luke Rodgers be back? Without Rodgers' ability to stretch defenses and create havoc around the 18-yard box, the Red Bulls are very one-dimensional and slow. Rodgers is the spark plug that allowed the team to be at its best last season. Backe and Erik Solér have to hoping desperately that the Englishman's visa issues will be sorted out soon.
  • Who will grab the starting goalkeeper job? Vuolo and Meara look fairly even so far, and we may not know until the conclusion of Arizona camp which of the two has the upper hand. (Credit to Meara, incidentally, for not falling asleep when Miller played a boneheaded backheel backpass in his own penalty area.)
It's way too early for Red Bulls fans to panic, but it's fair to ask if Backe has learned anything from last year's near-debacle. Thursday's friendly raised a number of red flags about the team's ability to play cohesively and mount consistent attacks. I fully expect Backe to declare himself satisfied with having kept a clean sheet and the team's overall defensive shape. But will that be enough once the season begins? At the moment, the Red Bulls look like an expensive sports car without an engine. Management's decision not to add a central attacking player until later in the summer could come back to bite them if the season gets off to a slow start.

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