New York is currently second in the Eastern Conference, trailing DC United by two points but owning a one game advantage on their long time rival.
They are fourth amongst Supporters Shield contenders with 31 points.
UP TO THIS POINT …
Ask any Red Bull fan at the start of this campaign if they would take a 9-4-4 record by midseason and you would be greeted with a resounding yes.
After starting the year with a couple of uninspired losses on the road against FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, the New York Red Bulls have gone an impressive 9-2-4 since April. In the first 17 matches of the year, they have outscored opponents 32 to 25, good for a +7 goal differential. Their 32 goals rank them third in the entire league. In addition, they possess the number 2 and 3 goal scorers in the league overall (Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper). Their offensive prowess and defensive flexibility have helped the team achieve one of their more lofty goals this season; making Red Bull Arena a “Fortress,” going undefeated at home (5-0-2).
The hot streak has recently cooled (1-1-3 in their past five matches), though the one victory against DC ranks amongst the greatest in team history.
Overall, taking all things into account, they couldn’t have asked for a better start than this.
PUTTING THINGS INTO PERSPECTIVE …
Red Bulls Head Coach Hans Backe lamented last week that New York has not been able to run out a consistent starting eleven. Despite that fact, the Red Bulls have stayed competitive and, more often than not, achieved outstanding results in the face of daunting obstacles.
A similar situation last year would have seen the team collapse, but this is not your 2011 Red Bulls. Hungry players such as Brandon Barklage, Connor Lade, and Tyler Ruthven, who were over looked and dismissed mere months ago, have become invaluable to this team.
And who saw that coming?
The answer is no one. Throughout preseason, the addition of castaways and unproven rookies to cushion a veteran laden starting eleven wreaked of stop-gap desperation and a lack of proper homework. Barklage was viewed as an injury waiting to happen. Connor Lade? A tiny defender who couldn’t handle the rigors of Major League Soccer. Tyler Ruthven? A standout on an atrocious NASL team. And entrusting the starting role to a rookie keeper out of Fordham University? Really?
That recipe for disaster turned out to be a season savior. As New York (once again) juggled their lineup through suspensions, injuries and other such hard luck situations, these roleplayers took center stage and proved to be every bit capable of handling the top tier of American soccer.
And it wasn’t just the roleplayers; veterans were forced to show their range as well. Jan Gunnar Solli went from being the team’s stalwart right back option to a lethal midfield distributor from the right or left hand side. Dane Richards has filled in up top as needed. Joel Lindpere, who made quite a stink about playing time earlier in the year, showed his propensity to play central midfield. And a resurgent Kenny Cooper proved he still has the skill to be a dominant forward in this league – with or without Thierry Henry.
Credit is due to Coach Hans Backe and the entire managerial staff; they have certainly acquired versatile players and used them to the best of their abilities. Surely, the second half of the year will further test this surprising depth New York has built upon.
KEY RESULT: RED BULLS 3 – 2 DC UNITED
Last week’s victory over DC United catapulted New York into a first place tie with the black and red.
More importantly, it rekindled a long dormant rivalry and introduced a record audience of 25,187 to a bit of New York soccer culture.
The Red Bulls not only fought back from a deficit :30 into the match, but managed to take a commanding lead and send a message to the conference with their victory; do not underestimate this team. The statement was made, and the victory was one that left an indelible mark on those witnessing the event.
Did I neglect to mention they did it with Thierry Henry starting the game on the bench? Well, there you go.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Ryan Meara
There is no shortage of talent that has played above their skill set. Mehdi Ballouchy has stepped up in key situations, Brandon Barklage has earned starting minutes thanks to an inspired workrate, Connor Lade, Dax McCarty, Jan Gunnar Solli … the list can go on.
Nevertheless, all of their contributions would be moot without the stellar play of Ryan Meara.
Think about it; Ryan Meara, a rookie out of Fordham University (hardly a soccer power if there ever was one), has done what Frank Rost, Greg Sutton, Bouna Coundoul, Danny Cepero, Ronald Wattereus and Jon Conway couldn’t before him – secure, protect and own the goal line. Where the goalkeeping situation was the prime point of concern for New York heading into the season, it is now one of it’s most solid. Quite an accomplishment by the local boy.
Honorable Mention: Dax McCarty
NEEDS IMPROVEMENT: Roy Miller
For all his faults, Roy Miller has long been considered one half of one of the most talented and versatile bookend defenders this league has to offer along with Jan Gunnar Solli. Whether it is injuries or international absences, he has certainly taken a step down this year. The peak of his failures happened this weekend as rookie Connor Lade supplanted the Costa Rican back as a starter against TFC.
When in form, Miller brings a lethal cross to the attacking game and a heady back track defense to the outside line. Right now, he hasn’t been able to do much of either for New York.
Honorable Mention: Dane Richards (It hasn’t been a terrible year for him, but he is certainly not the Dane of 2011).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Wilman Conde
The Red Bulls took a risk on defender Chris Albright a few years ago. Though he was injured, New York felt the MLS veteran was a worthy investment for the team. After many months of waiting, he fulfilled his promise.
Can Wilman Conde do the same? When the Colombian centerback is on his game, his skill and physicality is unmatched. He makes the heart of the defense no man’s land for opposing attackers. When he isn’t healthy, however, you have weaker performances like the one against Toronto FC this weekend, which saw the big man lose his marker and get burned by the capable forward lines of TFC time and time again.
Conde can be a major boon or bust for New York this year, guiding the team’s fortunes on either end of that spectrum. Just where will he be come season’s end? Only time will tell.
A forgiving schedule? You can call it that.
Out of the 17 matches remaining for New York, 15 are against Conference opponents. The two remaining West Coast sides, Seattle and Portland, will both be visiting New York, effectively quarantining the Red Bulls to one half of the country.
To make matters even better, 10 of the 17 matches will be played at Red Bull Arena, with the bulk of them (5 of 10) being played in their final seven matches in the crucial months of September and October.
Bottom line? The landscape is New York’s for the taking. It’s up to them to get the job done.
(And hey – there is also DP3 to look forward to; a yearly tradition around these parts.)
OVERALL GRADE: A-
From the coaching staff to the personnel, the Red Bulls have excelled both on and off the pitch. Injuries once again threatened their season, but the team didn’t fold like a cheap chair as has been the case in years past. Quite the contrary; coach Backe has mixed and matched a core of veterans with a hungry group of youngsters to create an unexpected and lethal depth that has kept the team afloat through many a dangerous time.
Let’s face it; when the season began and two losses opened the campaign, all seemed lost. A rookie keeper, an ineffective backline and a mess of a midfield painted a dire picture of the year to come. Instead, things have come up roses for New York, and now that the league has taken notice, it will be up to them to maintain that level for the remainder of the season.