Friday, July 26, 2013

On Again, Off Again Red Bulls Host RSL

Espindolave in Their RSL Days
It's never easy to win on the road in parity-obsessed MLS, and a draw away from home is usually a perfectly fine result. In fact, win at home, draw on the road is a pretty decent formula for MLS success. That's one of the points that our good friend Zac Wassink drove home when we discussed the Red Bulls' recent woes on the From the Factory Floor Podcast on Wednesday.

Even taking that into account, RBNY's recent Jekyll & Hyde act is hard to understand. No team has been more schizophrenic in recent weeks than New York. They've grabbed maximum points in their two most recent league home matches against decent opposition - Houston and Montreal - and done so in fairly comfortable style, without conceding a goal.

But on the road it's been a different story. Mike Petke and his players have said all of the right things building up to the last three away matches - in Philadelphia, Colorado and Toronto - but the performance on the field in each instance has left a lot to be desired. The 0-0 result against lowly Toronto was especially troubling, as TFC had not won a home match at BMO Field all season and arguably should have taken all three points against a listless, error-prone Red Bulls team. Petke laid into his players on MSG at halftime (and probably in the locker room as well), but if anything they looked even worse after the break. Asked by reporters this week about what went wrong, he had no good answers and claimed that he cracked the match DVD in half and threw it away rather than watch it again. Some managers might have forced players to do extra training or sit through painstaking film sessions to break down errors. That's apparently not Petke's style, for better or worse.

If the Red Bulls want to be considered one of the elite teams in MLS or have any chance of winning the Eastern Conference, they'll have to find a way to solve their road issues. With matches in Kansas City, Columbus and Houston (x2) on the horizon, things are unlikely to get any easier anytime soon. Petke needs to find a way to capture the confidence that his team seems to exude when they play in Harrison and stash a few bottles of it away in players' suitcases.

That's not to say that this weekend's home match against Real Salt Lake is a gimme by any stretch of the imagination. RSL is always a tough opponent, is riding high atop the Western Conference and boasts a league best 1.76 points per game - on track for the Supporters' Shield. But they arrive at Red Bull Arena somewhat shorthanded. Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran are all away with the U.S. Men's National Team on Gold Cup duty through Sunday. Moreover Chris Wingert is suspended due to a red card in last week's 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City. So the conditions are there for a mostly healthy RBNY squad to beat Jason Kreis' men - something they have not done since 2009. This will also be the first time that Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Jonny Steele will be up against their former team in league play.

As they prepare for the home stretch of the season, RBNY continues to make changes to the squad. In addition to adding defender Ibrahim Sekagya, who sealed his move to New York from sister club Red Bull Salzburg earlier in the month, the Red Bulls announced this week the signing of Bradley Wright-Phillips, formerly of Charlton Athletic, to bolster the front line and provide another option on the wing. Joe Prince-Wright at ProSoccerTalk has a pretty good analysis of what Wright-Phillips might bring to the table, which you can read here. Even as "Coca-Cola Kid" Wright-Phillips arrives, another "lesser sibling" departed this week, when the team formally cut ties with Kaka's brother Digao. The addition of Digao, who only featured once for the first team (during last year's playoff loss to DC United) will go down as one of the all-time dumbest roster moves in Red Bull history, taking it s place on the shelf of ignominy next to other calamitous signings such as Brian Nielsen, Juan Pietravallo, Claudio Reyna, Rafael Marquez and Salou Ibrahim.

If nothing else, the end of the Digao saga draws to a close the team's misguided pursuit of Kaka, a player well on the downside of his career. The fact that Petke is talking about adding a younger, hungrier player as a third designated player at some point should be encouraging news for fans who are tired of aging superstars more interested in New York for the nightlife and shopping it offers than they are in anything related to soccer. It also might say something about our Austrian overlords' unwillingness to get burned by the next big name flop.

A few more little nuggets before we get on to predictions:
  • Do you like tattoos? Check out Thierry Henry's new Big Apple-themed ink here. You think Jonny Steele and Tim Cahill are rubbing off on him? Sleeve tats for everyone!
  • Red Bulls' season ticket renewal forms started arriving in people's mailboxes this week. Red Card members who renew prior to the end of August get a snazzy jacket for each seat purchased. There is also a new referral plan. Most importantly, prices have been frozen for 2014!
  • The Great Satan may have a new lair. DC United has a rock-solid stadium deal. Or maybe not. Betting your retirement savings on this project actually coming to fruition is probably not a great idea. There are already a number of people lining up against it. But not having to trek to the upper deck of the crumbling RFK would be kind of nice.
So with that, let's look into the crystal ball to Saturday night with our team of *cough* experts...

Tom Faust has this to say:
Whenever I think about RBNY's performance against Toronto, I tend to pass out and wake up in a pool of vomit, so I'm going to try and avoid that. The fact is that RSL is, as they seem to be every year, one of the best teams in the league. I have no doubt that Jason Kreis will have his squad motivated and tactically prepared to handle whatever the Red Bulls can throw at them. So, I'm obviously picking a Salt Lake win, right? WRONG!!! Clearly, the Red Bulls are winning games they should lose and losing games they should win, which has serendipitously aligned with their home and away schedule. That's why I'm cynically predicting a 2-1 victory that will increase the confusion among the RBNY faithful, but prevent them from burning down Harrison in a blind rage. 
Viper has a 2-1  as well, just the other way around...
With key RSL pieces missing (Beckerman, Rimando) from this one, and RBNY showing fantastic home form the past two games, how can this be anything but an emphatic victory?  How?  This is RBNY, that's how.  I'm going to call this one 2-1 in favor of RSL.  It goes without saying, of course, that I hope I'm totally wrong. ;)
I'd love to be able to predict a Red Bulls win, but RSL just seems to have our number in recent years. I'll go for a 1-1 draw, Cahill notching a goal for the Red Bulls on a trademark header and young Luis Gil equalizing for the visitors after faking Markus Holgersson out of his clown shoes.

For those who cannot make it out to Red Bull Arena*, the game will be shown locally on MSG, kicking off at 7pm ET.

* built by Makita
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