BY MIKE VALLO
With the Apertura in the books, a rested Red Bulls side will finally kick off the Clausura this weekend against the Crew.
At least that’s what it feels like after a 17 day break between matches that made it abundantly clear that I have shockingly few hobbies and very little going on in my life. The yawning gap between games is another lovely feature of this year’s MLS schedule – apparently designed by a drunk toddler.
But after a season full of depth-stretching road trips, weekday games galore and loaded stretches that would tucker out any team, the wacky schedule is finally set to benefit New York. The Red Bulls play five of their remaining seven at home with two relatively easy road trips to Philadelphia and New England. With only five points between the top four teams in the East, the favorable schedule could prove invaluable in New York’s attempt to finish atop their conference.
The promise of fall is sorely needed after another lost summer for the Red Bulls. With the team still very much in contention for first in the East, that may seem harsh. However, they only averaged 1.4 points per game in the summer months. Even with that mediocre performance, the Red Bulls are four points out of first in the East. Had they done anything more than tread water all summer, New york could have easily left their Eastern rivals in the dust.
Given New York’s home form (they remain unbeaten at Red Bull Arena), the team looks poised to move up the standings. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still questions to be answered if an autumnal surge is going to come to fruition.
This season the Red Bulls have had a level of turnover and upheaval rivaled only by Greek politics. Of the eleven starters on opening day, six have been traded, demoted to the bench or, in the case of Ryan Meara, been lost to injury. The Metros/Red Bulls have historically been active when it comes to summer acquisitions but rarely have they made so many moves with this much impact on the starting eleven. With the exception of the signing of Louis Robles, all of New York’s three trades and three signings have directly affected the starting eleven by bringing in a new starter or competition for a starter.
The flurry of action has improved the team and created competition for spots more fierce than at any other time under Backe. The downside is a shortened window to develop chemistry. Given the number of playoff spots in MLS, the Red Bulls could afford to experiment with different lineups and starters throughout the summer. When the playoffs begi,n the Red Bulls need to know for certain who their best options are.
The back four has seen constant shifting of personnel and positions throughout the season. The Wilman Conde left back experiment has worked well and Hans Backe seems to have settled on his preferred four. Half of the starting central pair, Markus Holgersson, still scares me. The Swede has improved but too often he gets torched by an opposing forward, loses his man completely or fails to make a simple clearance.
Unfortunately Roy Miller’s form has dropped considerably to the point where the once exaggerated criticisms of the defender are now completely accurate, so Conde returning to the middle is unlikely. Fortunately, developing defensive chemistry is the most important factor in keeping the ball out of the net and the seven games remaining offer ample opportunity for the defense to become a more cohesive unit.
Less tinkering in the back will pay dividends.
A huge question mark for the Red Bulls is Rafa Marquez. The second highest paid player in MLS is set to return from injury, but what the Red Bulls will do with him is a mystery. It seems obvious that he has no place in the lineup. Backe would have to be insane to try to insert him into a midfield with a number of more talented options and when Marquez has played in defense the results have been poor. But on those rare occasions that he‘s been healthy, Backe has consistently found a place for him in the lineup. Hopefully Hans can resist the urge this time around. Having the most expensive benchwarmer in the league is still preferable to the having the massively overpaid liability on the field.
Sebastian Le Toux has been another headache for Red Bulls fans. Since the trade the Frenchmen has showed very little of the talent that was so obvious at his previous MLS destinations. Even worse his arrival has cut into the playing time of Kenny Cooper, the team’s leading scorer. It seems Cooper is repeatedly forced to earn his starting spot. I don’t doubt that Le Toux’s form will improve, but Cooper is a proven commodity for New York and should start without question.
Red Bulls fans should feel optimistic as the season’s final act begins. Third in the East, New York has an upcoming home game against second place Chicago and two remaining home tilts against first place Kansas City. Their two away games are against two of the worst teams in the league. DC United is fading and has fallen out of a playoff spot. The remaining roster concerns are minor compared to some of the debacles caused by injury earlier this season.
In fact the only thing that really scares me is my own optimism. After a lifetime of following the Browns and Metros, it just not something I’m comfortable with. First place in the Eastern Conference has to be the goal and, frankly, anything less would be a failure.