Red Bulls change course, become defensive

Photo by Jim Hague/ Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty, who has been a stalwart in the team’s two shutout victories over New England and Los Angeles, moves up the field against New England’s Shalrie Joseph last week.


By Jim Hague

So let’s get this straight about the New York Red Bulls, because the turn of events has been truly astounding.

A few weeks ago, the Red Bulls were on a course to becoming an offensive juggernaut. They had the top two goal scorers in Major League Soccer in Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper, both of whom were on pace to shatter every scoring record known to man. They were averaging almost four goals a game, an astounding total for a professional soccer team.

Then, the team was ravaged by injury and suspension. Henry suffered a strained hamstring that will keep him out of action for a month. Midfielder/ defender Rafa Marquez, who was supposed to be a savior when he was signed last year and has been nothing but a disappointment, was hit with a three-game suspension for dirty and rough play. Several other key players have been sidelined with injuries, including practically every member of the team’s starting backline.

So it forced head coach Hans Backe to change his philosophy and strategy.  Instead of coaching an offensive-minded squad, he had to revert to concentrating more on the defensive end.

Midfielder Teemu Tainio is out with an injury (knee), as are defenders Wilman Conde (groin), Stephen Keel (back) and Roy Miller (knee).

Once again, Backe utilized a backline that had very little experience with players like Brandon Barklage, Markus Holgersson, Tyler Ruthven and rookie Connor Lade. They concentrated on collapsing back on defense from the start and it was a strategy and philosophy that certainly worked.

Because the Red Bulls have managed to earn two straight shutout wins, last week, defeating New England at home, 1-0, and on Saturday, shocking the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy, also by a 1-0 score, on L.A.’s home turf.

This is the same Galaxy squad that features superstars like David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle and Robbie Keaney, yet the Red Bulls still won, playing an inexperienced backline and a rookie goalkeeper in Ryan Meara.

The Red Bulls (5-3-1 overall, 16 points) won for only the second time on the road this season.

It was only the fourth win for the Red Bulls against Western Conference foes on the road over the last five seasons. Prior to Saturday, the team’s mark against Western Conference teams on the road was a dismal 3-34.

For the second straight week, Meara was outstanding in goal, earning his second career shutout. While Meara wasn’t severely tested in last week’s shutout win over New England, he was tested early and often in Saturday’s win, making four saves in another clean sheet performance.

“It’s such an un-experienced back four, I think they have 20 games together, and it is their second clean sheet,” Backe said. “The whole team just worked their ass off. Normally when you have so many starters out you are forced to defend and they did it phenomenally. It was a definite team effort. They were under pressure but didn’t allow them a real opportunity, a lot of crosses and half chances, and Ryan once again was phenomenal.”

Backe knew that no one expected the Red Bulls to win with an undermanned roster. “There aren’t many people who gave us much of a chance and I can see why,” Backe said. “It’s about minimizing mistakes and being as effective as possible; then you can win these games on the road, too. It’s all about being aggressive in all actions, defending, attacking set plays, then you have a chance.’’

The Red Bulls took advantage of a lackluster performance from the Galaxy (3-5-1), who appeared to be sleepwalking through the first half and only put on real pressure in the late moments of the second half.

In the 19th minute, Jan Gunnar Solli, who returned to the lineup after missing a few weeks due to a calf injury, made a fine run up the left flank, then spotted Joel Lindpere trailing the action.

Lindpere, the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2010, found a seam between three Galaxy defenders and unleashed a left-footed shot that found the back of the net for the game’s lone goal.

“I actually don’t really remember,” Lindpere said of his goal. I think I passed it to Solli and he had some space. I ran with him and he passed it back to me. I had to make it quick because I saw players coming so I tried to chip it in. We have to use these chances against good teams. It was a great attack and a good finish.” It was Lindpere’s first goal of the season and it came on a pass from Solli, who because of the rash of injuries, was moved from defender to midfielder for Saturday’s game. There was other good news that came from the victory. Teenage forward Juan Agudelo returned to action after missing six weeks with a torn meniscus in his knee. Agudelo was the team’s first substitute in the second half and looked solid in his performance. Having Agudelo back will take a lot of the pressure off forward Kenny Cooper as the Red Bulls return home to face Houston in a rare Wednesday night game at Red Bull Arena.

“It will be tougher for us of course with Henry out for a month,” Backe said. “We are going to miss his goals and assists. But I still think Agudelo can be good for 20-25 minutes every game and we will get him in until Thierry is back.”

Meara, the feel-good story of the year, continues to grow in goal. The 21-year-old Fordham grad was all set to take the firefighter’s test in his native Yonkers, but now he’s putting out fires in the Red Bulls’ goal.

“It was a full team effort again and I think it is good to play these tight games,” said Meara, who made four saves, two of which were brilliant in the second half. “Sometimes when our back is up against the wall, we learn how to grind out these victories. It was another great win. The whole team really put in a great performance. It wasn’t always pretty. You got to do what you got to do to win and I think we really grinded it out.”

Two different styles of soccer with almost two totally different rosters, but one thing remains the same. The Red Bulls are winning. And frankly, that’s all that matters.

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