|Teammates Congratulate Cooper on His 10th Goal of the Season|
When Thierry Henry collapsed to the Red Bull Arena turf clutching his hamstring on April 28, things looked ominous for Hans Backe and the New York Red Bulls. Yes, Kenny Cooper was having a fine season since his move from Portland Timbers. But after Cooper, the squad looked pretty shaky. The defense was a mess, with Markus Holgersson struggling to adjust to MLS and Wilman Conde still out with an injury. The midfield was still full of question marks, with no player really staking a claim to the "Makelele role" and players like Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards misfiring. After Cooper, options up front looked decidedly thin. And in goal, Ryan Meara had yet to record a clean sheet.
The Red Bulls and Meara would go on to claim their first clean sheet of the season in the New England match and haven't looked back since, reeling off five wins in a row - home and away - capped off by Saturday's workmanlike 2-1 victory in Montreal.
What's changed? Let's start with defending. Though questions can still be about Holgersson, who still appears nervous on the ball and seems to be at the center of every calamity or near-calamity, new arrivals such as Brandon Barklage and Connor Lade have stepped in magnificently, solidifying the back four and providing non-stop effort. On Saturday, Lade was shifted forward into a five man midfield, with Roy Miller assuming his usual left back position, and you could see the effect of competition on the Costa Rican. Miller had one of his better matches of the season against the Impact, and it could have something to do with the fact that - for once - there are other players gunning for his starting job. With the addition of Heath Pearce in the Juan Agudelo trade, and the return of Conde on the horizon (one would assume), the Red Bulls' defense looks as solid as any unit in MLS as May draws to a close.
In midfield, Dax McCarty has made the "bulldog" role his own. Given that Teemu Tainio is expected to miss another two months or more with a lingering knee injury, McCarty's emergence could not have come at a better time. The Dwayne DeRosario trade is still a hard one for most Red Bulls fans to swallow, but McCarty is at last starting to show some of the qualities that made him an attractive target for Backe and Erik Solér. Meanwhile, Joel Lindpere is starting to score crucial goals again, notching a game winner in LA and scoring in Philadelphia. Even Dane Richards, who has been out of sorts in the season's early months, managed to get on the scoreboard on Saturday, fizzing in the game-winning goal off a rebound after the Red Bulls had gone down to ten men due to Victor Pálsson's idiocy (more on that in a moment).
Kenny Cooper, meanwhile, has proven to be worth every nickel the Red Bulls paid to Portland for his services. He's been carrying the bulk of the scoring load for RBNY in Henry's absence, and making a lot of people in MLS circles look pretty silly in the process. In Montreal, he stepped up confidently and scored a penalty after Montreal was adjudged to have handled the ball in their own penalty area by one of the worst refs you'll ever see call an MLS game (and that's saying a lot - more on him in a moment as well). With Henry poised to return and the promise of an attacking DP on the horizon - thanks in no small part to the salary flexibility gained by the sale of Agudelo - things are looking up.
Finally, how many superlatives can you use about Ryan Meara? Goalkeeping, which has been a sore spot for New York for several seasons running, is now a strength. When the Red Bulls have needed their keeper to step up and make a big save, Meara has done it. He has also been vocal in commanding his makeshift back four, has done a fine job on crosses and corners, and is expert at cutting down angles. Easily the draft steal of the year, and arguably a bigger bargain than Tim Ream. If Meara keeps going like this, the Red Bulls may have a hard time holding onto him.
OK, enough of the positives. I don't want to be "that guy," but in the interest of candor, there are a few things that are not working at the moment. Holgersson I mentioned above. Yes, he scored a big goal against Philly, and no, the ridiculous handball called against him on Saturday in Montreal was not his fault, but the hulking Swede still seems uneasy on the ball and panics when coolness is required. Hopefully the addition of Pearce and/or the return of Conde will help solve the Holgy Conundrum.
Then there's Rafa Marquez - the man no one wants. When rumors of a Marquez for Pearce trade began to fly earlier in the week, I offered on Twitter to drive Marquez to the airport and throw in a bottle of Cristal, and the offer still stands. Yes, Marquez can still play the occasional magical pass (witness his sublime ball over the top for Cooper in Philadelphia), but defensively he's a total liability, and he has never seemed to grasp that a high work rate is a must in MLS. If rumors are true, and Marquez has expressed a desire to get out of New York, the front office should be moving heaven and earth to make it happen.
As for Pálsson, he has been flat out awful in his few appearances this season, and stupidly got sent off on Saturday, after a rash challenge from behind. If Pálsson was once the cream of Liverpool's youth system, you can see why the Reds are in trouble. Given his pedigree, I'm inclined to think that Pálsson has just been unlucky and nervous in his appearances, but one more boneheaded decision could see him relegated to Backe's doghouse, permanently.
Finally, a word on the referee, Ismail Elfath. This was Elfath's first ever MLS game and it showed. A game that should have been scoreless at halftime was instead 1-1 due to two very questionable handball calls. The Impact's Jeb Brovsky was also very lucky not to receive a straight red card for a second half studs-up lunge. There were a number of other strange calls as well, rounding off what was an awful performance by the officiating crew. Poor refereeing is a perennial complaint in MLS. If the league is truly making an effort to improve, they should send Elfath back to USL Pro or NASL or wherever he came from.
The Red Bulls now have a short turnaround until their next league game, at home on Wednesday against Chivas USA. Yes, the Chivas USA featuring Juan Agudelo!