If a team is monstrously inept but no one is there to see it, are they still five points out of first? Unfortunately for the Red Bulls, the answer is yes.
Last night’s loss was worse than just a failure to achieve points; it was a spotlight on all the Red Bulls imperfections and lingering questions, obliterating any feeling of confidence New York might have had going into the final stretch of the season.
The match was billed as a heavyweight fight between two of the Eastern Conference elite. Instead, one contender didn’t bother to show up, much like the fans who must have sensed the impending embarrassment. Or maybe the fact that the team’s useless head of business operations has been replaced by no head of business operations is more to blame for the poor attendance.
Either way the disappointing crowd was only matched by the team they came to see.
The shellacking raises a lot of unpleasant questions and bursts more than a few bubbles. This time yesterday Red Bull Arena was a fortress. Now that mental advantage is in ruins. With a blemished home record, the Red Bulls remaining schedule doesn’t look nearly as favorable as it did.
Any fear or respect Sporting Kansas City had in regards to their Eastern rival is also gone. The teams will meet once more at Red Bull Arena before the season ends and could very well meet in the playoffs. Having dismantled a full strength New York side, the Sportings have to be confident going into future tilts.
More damaging was the blow to New York’s hopes of securing home field advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs. They are now five points behind Kansas City and a point behind Chicago who have a game in hand. Given the team’s atrocious away form, that’s a big obstacle to the championship.
Of course, you could write this off as just a bad day for the Red Bulls. It happens to all teams and if Thierry Henry rips a shot that almost goes out for a throw-in, you know you are in for a rough day. But such a spectacular failure in a huge game does not bode well for the inevitable big games to come. The factors that contributed to the loss are the same issues that have popped up in losses throughout the season.
The Red Bulls spoke this week about the importance of not conceding an early goal. They gave up two in the first twenty minutes. In fact, this season they have conceded the first goal more than a third of their games.
That alone will cost the Red Bulls an MLS Cup.
Speaking of things that will cost the Red Bulls an MLS Cup, Hans had a howler last night. Rather than rise to the occasion, the Swede over thought his lineup and doomed his team. On the way to yesterday’s game, a friend asked me if I thought the Red Bulls would have a better record if the players set the lineup and Hans didn’t exist. At the time I laughed it off … but it might be worth consideration.
After the team scored three goals in a victory over Columbus, Hans naturally felt the need to completely rejigger the lineup. His nonsensical tinkering evoked Juan Carlos Osorio and his notebook of misery. The defensive 4-4-1-1 was meant to stifle Kansas City’s high pressure but ultimately led to a game played almost entirely in New York’s half. Again, Kenny Cooper didn’t get the start and playing Tim Cahill as a withdrawn forward behind Henry produced almost no offensive threat.
The starting eleven also featured Joel Lindpere, Rafa Marquez, Teemu Tainio, Wilman Conde and Markus Holgersson making it the slowest in competitive soccer history. Predictably, C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara had a field day making runs with ease past the lead-footed back four.
In short, the lineup Hans chose was an unmitigated disaster. To compound fans’ frustrations the Red Bulls came out completely flat for a big game, as they’ve done so often in the past. I’ve never seen a team so incapable of feeling urgency. That lack of mental preparation is also on the coach. A coach can never get 100% of the blame for a loss; the players always have some control over the result. Still, last night was about as close as you can get. The talented team masterfully crafted by Erik Soler is completely wasted on Hans Backe. Considering it’s an aging group that will either win now or never, that’s tragic.
So what now? First place in the East is unlikely but still possible. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Red Bulls put together a string of great performances to lift fans’ spirits and the team is certainly capable of lifting the MLS Cup Trophy. But for that to happen New York would have to go through the entire playoffs without a Backe brainfart, without coming out flat and conceding early, without injuries and without an off game from Henry.
With so many qualifiers for success and last night’s display of vulnerability, a championship seems far off.