How did the New York Red Bulls get to the 2011 MLS postseason? By the skin of their teeth, and only thanks to Don Garber's 10-team playoff brainstorm.
New York's season began in a promising enough fashion, with a big home win against Seattle Sounders that was sealed with a fine Juan Agudelo goal. That victory was followed up by a well-earned point in Columbus, which has not been a happy hunting ground in recent years for the Red Bulls. Four points through two tough games - not a bad haul, most fans must have thought. Even though Thierry Henry was not yet firing on all cylinders, through the the first several weeks of the season at least the Red Bulls' defense held firm and exhibited many of the same stingy qualities they showed in 2010.
Tim Ream's horrific giveaway in Philadelphia that led to Rogers Torres' winning goal was the sign that all might not be well with the Red Bulls defensively, and it was the first of a series of errors that would plague New York's back line over the course of the season. Throw in Hans Backe's constant rotation in goal (one week Condoul, the next Greg Sutton) and the departure of key players for long stretches of the season and you have a recipe for turmoil. Big victories over San Jose and DC United prior to the Gold Cup break, along with the emergence of Luke Rodgers, proved that the Red Bulls had enough scoring punch to trouble any team. But these results only masked defensive deficiencies, which could be seen more clearly in the home defeat against a mediocre Chivas USA team and the injury time meltdown against Columbus that saw two points thrown away at the death.
Much has been made by Backe of the fact that no team suffered more than the Red Bulls from Gold Cup departures. It's a fair point, but even without the likes of Marquez, Ream and Richards New York should still have had enough firepower and depth to get through a month of games. Here, we began to see how much of the team's depth had been traded away under Erik Soler and Backe's tenure. Steady if unspectacular players like Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Seth Stammler, Danleigh Borman and Carl Robinson could be counted on in 2010 to do a solid job when needed. With these kids of lunchpail players now either traded, injured or retired, there was not much depth when the team needed it most, during their long mid-season West Coast road trip. Couple that with Backe's almost pathological unwillingness to use substitutions (and a meaningless trip to London for the Emirates Cup) and you have a very tired squad, not mention one of the league's oldest.
Of course no discussion of the Red Bulls' 2011 season would be complete without a discussion of the Dwayne De Rosario trades. Looking at the original transaction - De Rosario for Tchani and Borman - it's hard to see how any general manager worth his salt would not have pulled the trigger. Neither Borman nor Tchani have covered themselves in glory since the trade went down. Henry had started the season slowly and the team seemed to be in need of a creative force in the middle of the park, as well as some goalscoring spark, so the rationale seemed reasonable at the time. Unfortunately for New York, De Rosario never really found a way to mesh with Henry, who has had a tendency to drop very deep to start attacks during his time with the Red Bulls, and both players would often occupy the same space. Perhaps a more creative manager could have found a way to make the De Rosario/Henry/Rodgers triumvirate work more effectively. Backe is clearly not that manager.
De Rosario's trade to United has, of course, looked bad almost from the moment the Canadian landed in Washington. Slotted into a more pure attacking role, he thrived in D.C. and is probably the odds-on favorite for MLS MVP. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, ended up with a mostly out-of-form Dax McCarty and an international slot, which they used on German goalkeeper Frank Rost. Originally branded as a "DP bust" after just a few games, Rost has in fact brought some badly needed discipline at the back. He's a major reason why the Red Bulls have been able to recover sufficiently enough to push themselves over the playoff finish line, as is the return from injury ofRodgers. When Rodgers plays, the Red Bulls usually enjoy success. When he sits they struggle. His status for Wednesday's game in Dallas is up in the air.
New York's season has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. It could yet still end in glory, but they will need to continue the defensive improvement they enjoyed toward the tail end of the season if they are to have any hope of getting past the Western Conference powerhouses.