The New York Red Bulls should have entered Sunday night's home match against Portland Timbers full of confidence. After a disastrous, listless showing two weeks ago in Houston, they had bounced back with a 2-0 home victory sealed by a late Jan Gunnar Solli goal. Despite intense competition at the top of MLS' Eastern Conference, there's no team in the East (perhaps none in the league) that can match RBNY's roster, on paper at least. The addition of the inspirational Tim Cahill should have added an extra incentive to play at a high level as the 2012 season stretch run began.
How, then, did the Red Bulls find themselves trailing 2-0 on Sunday as the minutes ticked down toward the half-time whistle? How did a team that is cruising toward a post-season berth allow itself to get sucker punched not once, but twice, by the league's worst road team and one of the league's least potent offenses? That RBNY managed to claw back to level before half-time and win the match in the second half says a lot about the players' willingness to fight, even when down. But the fact that they allowed themselves to be manhandled by an anemic Portland team for much of the first half - and even several moments in the second - has to raise some alarm bells. If the Red Bulls can't cope against the league's bottom feeders at home, how can they have any chance on the road against the likes of Sporting Kansas City (next weekend's opponent) or D.C. United?
One of the prime culprits in New York's shaky start was left back Roy Miller. The victim of bad giveaways on both Portland goals, Miller compounded his errors by failing to sprint back and recover the ball (his slow jog on Bright Dike's opener really is disgraceful). If there is a lazier defender in the league, we'd like his name. To be fair, Miller played for Costa Rica in midweek action, and he was hardly the only player at fault on the Dike goal, but after committing another series of calamitous mistakes on the second goal, Miller shouldn't have been surprised when he was subbed off in favor of Kenny Cooper in just the 36th minute.
It didn't take Cooper long to victimize his former club. After a beautifully worked series of passes down the right side, Dax McCarty played the ball to Jan Gunnar Solli, who curled a perfect cross to the head of an unmarked Cooper. Suddenly, the Red Bulls were back in the game. Only minutes later, just before halftime, RBNY would level things up. A McCarty shot ricocheted off a Portland defender in the Timbers' penalty area, cannoned back to Cahill, and the Australian cracked a volley beyond the reach of Donovan Ricketts. The Timbers' players were livid that the goal was allowed to stand, claiming that the referee, Jason Anno, had blown his whistle for a hand ball, which would have given New York a penalty. On the replay, you can clearly hear a whistle prior to the ball going in the net, but Anno allowed the goal to stand. Portland manager Gavin Wilkinson, already under pressure from fans, was understandably livid at the decision.
In any event, after a tumultuous first half, the Red Bulls remarkably were level at the break, with a decent chance of winning the match. The winner would eventually come late, from the head of Heath Pearce, but not before Man of the Match Bill Gaudette, who has been simply remarkable in place of the injured Ryan Meara, was forced to make a string of excellent saves.
It's hard to know what to make of this Red Bulls team at the moment. Solid one week, shaky the next, capable of all sorts of danger on the offensive end but just as much when they're defending, vulnerable to counterattacking play yet capable of staying organized when they put their minds to it. You wouldn't want to bet your house on New York going far in the playoffs or even - who knows? - winning the Supporters Shield. Yet at the same time you can see that the talent is there if they can sort out the defensive issues and find some consistency.
Next it's on to Kansas City for a showdown game with Sporting KC, which should tell us a lot about the eventual destination of the Eastern Conference crown.
A big thanks to our friend Mike Loreti for the outstanding pre-game tailgate. A great time was had by all, despite this team trying to rip our hearts out again and again. See above for drunken half-time comments and go here for some pre-match thoughts from me, Mike, Tom Faust and our friend Dan Feuerstein.