All MLS beware! Hide the women and children, for the New York Red Bulls are in the playoffs!
That’s the story – or something like it – going around MLS circles this morning. Prevailing winds of conversation seem to suggest that now that New York has punched its post-season ticket, the talent will prevail. Watch out, MLS, the Red Bulls are back.
Only, I’m not buying it. I’ve heard about how Hans Backe’s team looked “calm” and in control in last night’s 1-0 win over Philadelphia. And, yes, credit for a businesslike performance, and for getting a result when one absolutely, positively needed to be pinned to the wall.
But I think it’s a case of over-reaction. One result, in my mind, doesn’t erase months of stumbling, bungling and underachieving.
(Read on for explainers ...)
This is still a team that is a very humble 3-2-3 over its last eight at Red Bull Arena. Bottom line here, we've been mesmerized by all this "talent" all year. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" In this case, the "man behind the curtain" is the actual team we've seen over the last few months. And it's been less than impressive.
What I saw last night was a pretty good performance, especially in midfield, where three-quarters of the assembly looked up to the fight. Dax McCarty, Teemu Tainio and, especially, Joel Lindpere were engaged and committed. (The fourth member of that midfield, Rafa Marquez? Color me unimpressed. Again.)
Dane Richards was also good in a surprise role up top.
But a 1-0 win at home over a Philadelphia side that looked quite average doesn’t put Backe’s boys on a fast track to MLS fame in my mind. The Union, by the way, hasn’t been particularly good on the road this year. Philadelphia’s four road wins are tied for best in the weaker East, but five teams in the West have amassed more Ws away from home.
And let’s look at this “calmness.” If Philadelphia’s marking on the one goal isn’t a complete shambles (leaving Dane Richards all alone in front of goal), I suspect things wouldn’t have looked quite so “calm” as the game went on.
Along those lines, this is how New York always plays, with a heavy lean toward technical craft and heady offensive spacing. (As opposed to, say, Houston or some other blue collar team that gets things done through energy, grit and competitive desire.) If Philadelphia had scored first, I don’t think we would have seen a much different Red Bulls team. Then, all the stories today would sound more like what we’ve heard over the last three or four months about the Red Bulls, that they fall short in heart, commitment and want-to.
Here’s the thing: I just don’t think one win makes this a vastly improved team. It doesn’t fill all the potholes. It sure doesn’t instantly reverse Tim Ream’s poor season. It doesn’t cover the defensive deficiencies in Jan Gunnar Solli’s game. (In fairness, the Red Bull’s right back was quite dangerous going forward last night.) It doesn’t cover the hole that Marquez’s lethargy creates in the middle.
The Red Bulls can be a dangerous team. Thierry Henry remains a game-changer. Luke Rodgers’ will and drive (not to mention his hold-up play) means a lot. Richards contributes all that speed. But here’s the bottom line for me:
Whatever problems, internal or in team spirit or whatever, that stifled the side for all those summer months didn’t just disappear overnight.
The Red Bulls might just win in the wildcard round. Maybe. From there?
I could be wrong – but I’ll be surprised if this team gets further than the conference semifinals.