On Saturday night the New York Red Bulls had an opportunity to walk into Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah and get a result against a stuttering and often struggling Real Salt Lake team. Sadly, that did not happen.
The line-up was fairly strong, so that should not be an excuse. The burden, for me, falls squarely on the shoulders of head coach Hans Backe. Frank Rost started in goal, but you might not have noticed there was somebody between the posts on Luis Gil’s first half shot from distance. In front of the DP-keeper, Tim Ream and Rafa Marquez partnered for the first time since the Gold Cup. Roy Miller played left back and Chris Albright slotted into right back to allow Jan Gunnar Solli to push up to the midfield. Teemu Tainio pulled out of the match due to illness, which left Dax McCarty and Mehdi Ballouchy floundering the middle of the park. As usual, Joel Lindpere put in effort without much thought on the left flank, Juan Agudelo was not on the same wavelength as the players delivering service from the midfield, and Thierry Henry was disgusted with the players on his team.
Almost from the outset New York was absent in the midfield. Mehdi Ballouchy is New York’s Jermaine Jenas. He is supposed to be a great attacking midfielder or a box-to-box midfielder depending on who you ask, but in reality he can’t shoot or pass, make clever runs or deftly first touch a ball to save his life. But that’s a rant for another day. Dax McCarty does not have the technical ability to direct traffic for a fast-paced team like the Red Bulls. The lack of production from these two players drew Thierry Henry farther and farther back into the midfield, until he was routinely collecting the ball at the New York 18 yard box.
Real Salt Lake’s first goal was understandable, a powerful header by Nat Borchers from a corner kick. Set piece goals sting, but they happen. The second goal was completely Frank Rost’s fault. Luis Gil, 17 years old and on my Olympic prediction squad, picked up the ball outside the 18 and powered a simple shot to the far post. Rost looked drunk as he stumbled off his line looking confused, as if he didn’t realize he’d actually have to make a save in the game.
At halftime Bouna Coundoul came in for Rost and Keel came into center defense, allowing Marquez to push into the midfield replacing the ineffective McCarty. The second half produced periods of sustained pressure from New York but nothing to show for it. Red Bulls players always looked frantic and hurried on the ball, while Luis Gil and Kyle Beckerman were cool, calm and collected when leading the attack for Real Salt Lake. Late in the game, Roy Miller was judged to have handled the ball in the box off a corner kick and Alvaro Saborio slotted the ensuing penalty into the corner past a diving Coundoul.
This is getting embarrassing for the Red Bulls now. We haven’t had a win since the 5-0 thrashing we handed out to Toronto FC at Red Bull Arena exactly one month ago. Our last win before that nearly another month, at home against a terrible New England team. Today’s loss means that New York has won only two matches since April 30th. That is simply unacceptable for the amount of talent this squad possesses.
When players don’t perform up to their abilities once, it’s a personal issue. Twice, it’s a slump in morale. But when a team makes a habit of underperforming, where else can you look but to the manager? That was the argument that I, and countless others, used against Bob Bradley when he was the coach of the USMNT. The commentators mentioned during the match that tonight was the first time Hans Backe utilized all three substitutions since April, and that was only because of two injuries. Backe has the tactical know-how of a drunk rock. This current run of form should spur supporters on to demand accountability. The silent protest during the first half of the match against FC Dallas showed that frustration with the management is there. New York is knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup, haven’t won a league game in 31 days, but played starters in an exhibition overseas tournament. That is a prime exhibition of the priorities of the club’s office jockeys.
The fans deserve better than Hans Backe, the league deserves something more entertaining than Backe’s conservative Scandinavian style, but most importantly the players on the field deserve a manager who understands how to highlight the technical superiority of New York’s superstar players.