This wasn't how the New York Red Bulls wanted to start their 2012 campaign. Facing a tough task at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday, up against one of MLS' most talented and organized sides, RBNY didn't come close to measuring up and now find themselves 0-2 on the young season. Through two games the Red Bulls have shown many of the same weaknesses that plagued them in 2011 - mental errors, defensive lapses, disorganization and a toothless midfield that seems incapable of linking play. Just one week into the season, Hans Backe is already under enormous pressure, even before his team has had a chance to kick a single ball in Harrison. Admittedly, the MLS schedule makers did RBNY no favors by starting them on the road in consecutive weeks against difficult Western Conference foes, but it's less the defeats themselves than the manner of the defeats that has to be troubling to Red Bulls fans.
Alert to RSL's attacking threat, Backe set out his team in a 4-5-1 formation, with Thierry Henry isolated up top and a three-man central midfield of Victor Pálsson, Dax McCarty and Teemu Tainio. Clearly, his aim was to clog the center of the park, deny RSL any time or space to create and hope for either a scoreless draw or a lucky goal on the break. It wasn't an ambitious plan, but given the Red Bulls horrid record at Rio Tinto Backe opted for safety over boldness. The tactic seemed to work through the first half hour, as RBNY did a fair job of closing down danger, with ever creating attacks of their own.
Then a loose pass by the ineffective Pálsson led to a quick RSL break. Fabian Espindola received the ball in space behind Jan Gunnar Solli, who had advanced to join a rare RBNY attack, took advantage of Roy Miller's poor defensive line to remain onside, and blasted the ball between Ryan Meara's legs for the opening goal. For the Red Bulls, it was yet another catalogue of errors - first Pálsson's pass, then Miller's daydreaming and finally Meara's inability to stop a shot directed squarely at his body. The "defend at all costs" approach was suddenly up in flames. If New York hoped to get anything out of the match, they would have to find a way to create as well as deny.
Backe subbed off Pálsson and the injured Tainio at half time, replacing them with Mehdi Ballouchy and Kenny Cooper. The moves allowed the Red Bulls to enjoy a bit more time on the ball and in RSL's half, but they didn't pay dividends on the scoresheet. Instead the home side doubled their advantage near the hour mark. After some slick buildup play 20-30 yards from goal, a ball was played square across the top of the penalty area to Espindola. His shot was parried well by Meara, but Luis Gil was on hand to smack the rebound into the back of the net, making the slug-like Roy Miller look silly in the process. 2-0 and game over.
The only sustained period of Red Bulls pressure came in the final 20 minutes, when RSL was content to sit back and soak up attacks. Despite winning eight corner kicks on the night, RBNY failed to do anything with them. A close-range effort from Jan Gunnar Solli was saved easily by the steady Nick Rimando, while an ambitious Thierry Henry bicycle kick flashed past the post.
The only silver lining to take from New York's first two matches is that they are now done with FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake for the remainder of the MLS regular season. The Red Bulls now return home for games against Colorado Rapids and Montreal Impact, with the maximum six points required. The team and its demoralized fans are in dire need of a positive result. Wilman Conde, who will begin training again on Monday, and Rafa Marquez, who has served his suspension for last year's playoffs incident, should be in the lineup against Colorado. But it's really up front that's the issue. Until the Luke Rodgers visa situation is resolved, RBNY will continue to look slow and one dimensional in the attack. At the very least, one would hope to see Kenny Cooper get his first start against Colorado, after two fairly steady substitute appearances.