Trying to Figure Out What Wrong Went with the Red Bulls

The New York Red Bulls traveled to Frisco, Texas, to take on FC Dallas for the season opener, but half the team thought it was still preseason.  Roy Miller was horrible and Dane Richards lacked quality.  Juan Agudelo got the start and played 90 minutes, but looked isolated and lost for large parts of the game.  Thierry Henry was sharp and match ready, but not even the Frenchman’s enthusiasm could ignite a New York comeback in this match.  The Red Bulls went down 2-1 to Dallas and will look to rebound against a strong Real Salt Lake on Saturday.

Maybe Hans Backe read Leander Schaerlaeckens’s article that criticized the Red Bulls’ coaching staff in their treatment of Juan Agudelo’s development.  First team minutes for a developing player isn’t always a good thing, though.  It was clear to anybody watching last season that Thierry Henry and Juan Agudelo just don’t play well together.  The style of their games is just too similar to be successful on the field at the same time.  This was just one of many tactical mistakes made on the day.

The team started the game in a 4-4-2 formation in Frisco on Saturday.  Marcus Holgersson got his first MLS start and Stephen Keel partnered the Swede, in for the injured Wilman Conde.  Jan Gunnar Solli and Roy Miller started as the fullbacks.  Solli was explosive at the beginning of the 2011 season for the Red Bulls, but Miller had been proving himself more of a liability than an asset throughout last year.

Joel Lindpere, the backbone of the team, started out wide left and Dane Richards started on the right.  In the middle, Teemu Tainio played his hard tackling clean-up role in central midfield and Dax McCarty got the nod in place of the suspended Rafael Marquez (after this dignified display following the play-off loss to Los Angeles).  Now here’s a problem already, which one of the two central midfielders is going to spread the ball out wide and play incisive balls through to the runs of the forwards?  The answer is Thierry Henry.

Hans Backe decided to give Juan Agudelo some minutes, starting up top with Thierry Henry.  The quite cynical would argue that Backe set Agudelo up to flop in the beginning of the season so he wouldn’t have to hear criticisms of benching America’s new sweetheart. New off-season signing, Kenny Cooper had been heating up during preseason and looked to be in form.  If Backe wants to play Henry as the deep-lying play-making forward, then he needs to play a center forward like Cooper to get on the end of the service.

Dax McCarty and Teemu Tainio played very close to each other and were trying to do much the same thing.  The diminutive McCarty was clumsy in his tackles from the outset and drew a booking in just the fifth minute.

McCarty doesn’t add much on attacks in the box, so Tainio got forward on corners.  However, Tainio doesn’t have strong attacking instincts and that showed when he stumbled into Lindpere and prevented a possible goal.

When Meara made his first real save in 8th minute, he cleared the ball up to Agudelo who was completely isolated and outnumbered by the Dallas defense.  Henry had dropped back behind three midfield players because he wasn’t confident in their ability to work the ball up the field.

Dane Richards showed the two things that we’ve known about him for a while now.  First, that he has loads of speed.  And secondly, that he can’t cross the ball well at all.  This makes him a very one-dimensional winger and quite predictable in a system with two strikers.

However it was FC Dallas whose speed exposed the Red Bulls on Saturday.  After a poor corner from Lindpere, Dallas broke away on the counter attack and Roy Miller put in one of the worst tackle attempts I’ve seen from a professional.  He stood still and half-heartedly lunged his right foot near where the ball was two seconds earlier.  Tainio could have seen yellow for kicking Villar’s head.  Neither Holgersson nor McCarty could clear the ball on the ensuing free kick.  

And yes, Kyle Martino said that the Red Bulls neglected to work on set pieces during their practice on Friday.  And yes, it showed.

Both Henry and Agudelo tend to drop deep to receive the ball, this left the FC Dallas backline with nothing to do.  They were content to push up because no one was threatening them.  Because of this lack of pressure up top, Lindpere and Richards each tried to push the Dallas defense back but then left a gap that was exploited by quick counter attacking play every time.

Even Hans Backe called out Roy Miller for gifting FC Dallas their second goal of the game in the 61st minute.  “Two very silly, crappy goals,” Backe said in the postgame.  “You can’t give away two goals like that; it’s assists from our guys.  Poor clearances in our 18 yard and of course Roy Miller’s assist in the second goal. We deserved a better result.”  Roy Miller absolutely assisted the goal, he made a stupid pass towards his centerback without looking up to see Perez anticipating the play.  

Roy Miller is a terrible footballer.  There, I said it.  He doesn’t defend well, he doesn’t pass well, he can’t beat an opposition player and his speed doesn’t make him a viable option on the overlap for Lindpere.  He is just plain bad at what he does.  Hopefully this means we’ll get to see Connor Lade start against Real Salt Lake.  The recent Homegrown signing and St. John’s Universtiy graduate performed well in preseason according to all reports and couldn’t do any worse than the Costa Rican international did today.

Almost off the bat in the second half McCarty was looking to go forward more often but without purpose and decisiveness.  While FC Dallas always looked dangerous on the counter attacker, New York consistently took too many touches or too many neutral (or negative) passes on the break.  Shortly after the goal, Hans Backe took out the ineffective winger Dane Richards, to introduce Kenny Cooper.  Cooper’s job was to stretch the backline as a center forward and complement Juan Agudelo while Henry moved deeper.  But with Lindpere as the only naturally wide player on the field, Jan Gunnar Solli consistently got sucked up the right side until the team’s second substitution.  For the almost fifteen minutes, however, the team looked to be playing a 4-2-3-1 with Henry in the hole and Agudelo wide right.  After the introduction of Victor Palsson, the shape looked more like cluster with 3 natural center midfielders on the field and Henry popping up in the center of middle and wide as a left winger.

Palsson had a straight nasty tackle to break up a 3 on 2 break for Dallas.  He showed sparks and should get more minutes to get accustomed the league and his role in the team.  Despite liking to play deep, Palsson showed his tenacity farther up the field and could prove to be an important option in the rotation for New York this season.  While I do rate Palsson, I don’t know where he fits in the squad when Tainio and Marquez are both healthy and available.  He is however, a more exciting player to play next to a natural holding player like Tainio than is McCarty.  McCarty isn’t a terrible player (like Ballouchy is) but he doesn’t do anything great.  He’s a useful back-up player who can tackle and patrol the park if you need him to, but he’s not a magnificent ball-winner.

The first hour of the match was hard to watch, unless you are Ryan Meara’s family.  Even though the game was mostly terrible, there are three important positives to take out of this match.

The first is Ryan Meara.  The 21 year old rookie goalkeeper was solid and confident in his first ever MLS start.  Ryan Meara plays like a goalkeeper with years of MLS experience.  He makes decisions, often the right ones, and commits when he makes them.  He even looks comfortable with the ball at his feet when he teammates passed it back to him.He controlled his area and was dominant on crosses and corners.  He showed his pace by rushing off the line to intercept long balls.  He exhibited some shot-stopping ability and improvisation to make remarkable double-saves.  I hope Meara follows up this performance with the next game and Jeremy Vuolo could be looking at a season on the bench and in the U.S. Open Cup after witnessing his competition for the starting spot excel in his debut..

The second positive is Kenny Cooper.  Thierry Henry sent a ball over the top to Cooper on the New York goal.  While Portland fans insisted that Cooper was not a traditional center forward after he was traded to New York, he is the best option we’ve had in a long time.  We saw Henry feed a ball to Cooper who has the strikers’s instincts to finish.  Hopefully we’ll see this connection provide many more goals this season. 

The third and last positive of the match in Frisco is that Hans Backe willingly made all three substitutions.  Much of last year’s criticism was focused on Backe’s stubbornness and his tendency to play the same 11 players for 90 minutes.  Maybe this is a sign that Backe is starting to adjust to the style of MLS, or maybe it’s just an early season coincidence because the coaching staff doesn’t know where everyone fits into the squad yet.


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