The Red Bulls Rollercoaster

 By Mark Fishkin

So, how’s your 2011 MLS season gone so far? Are you a fan an LA Galaxy or FC Dallas, and have watched your team deliver positive results all season? Perhaps you support the first-year Portland Timbers, who have turned a strong home start into a surprising run at a playoff berth. Maybe you’re a DC United fan, and your club has been energized for the home stretch by midseason addition Dwayne DeRosario.

Sadly, I support the New York Red Bulls, who have put their fans on a sizzling, then fizzling rollercoaster over the club’s first 27 matches. Loaded with talent, the Red Bulls have been a massive disappointed because of the revolving roster, lack of depth, international call-ups, and nagging injuries. Through it all, New York has had a few mini-seasons in its 2011 campaign, each marked by different lineups and vastly different results.

I: Racing Out of the Gate

New York started the season with a 4-1-3 run, garnering five shutouts in eight matches. Newly acquired Luke Rodgers and Thierry Henry clicked, and the Red Bulls responded. A 4-0 demolition of DC United at RFK on national TV was the high point, punctuated by a spectacular late goal by Juan Agudelo. The mini-season ended with a hard-fought, 1-1, draw at LA, also on ESPN2. After eight matches, RBNY led the Eastern Conference and appeared ready for a long stay at the top of the divisional table.

II: National Team Players Depart, then the Defense, then DeRo

Major League Soccer is not only a home for American talent, but for players from all over CONCACAF, and as the Gold Cup kicked off in early June, the talent-laden New York side lost more starting players than any other MLS team. Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo (USA), Rafa Marquez (MEX), Dwayne DeRosario (CAN), and Dane Richards (JAM) all departed the Red Bulls in late May, breaking the chemistry created in the early part of the season.

After a 3-1-2 start, Goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul was benched in favor of Greg Sutton, and with the starting central defenders missing, balls started pouring into the Red Bulls goal. A shock 2-3 home loss to Chivas USA preceded four straight draws where New York allowed six tallies. After a 2-1 home win over a poor New England Revolutoin side, the Red Bulls allowed three at Portland and four at Seattle, prompting coach Backe to send Sutton back to the bench. After a strong start, New York skidded on a 1-2-6 run, dropping the club to second in the East.

Despite the fact that he had sublimated his game as a Red Bull, 5-time MLS Cup champion Dwayne DeRosario, who had been acquired on April 1, was sent to DC United on June 27th for Dax McCarty. At the time, RBNY Sporting Director Erik Soler said the move was principally a financial one, but no one would confuse the two players, and New York’s offense, save Thierry Henry, would suffer as the summer continued.

III: Jumping July

Playing a flat midfield with McCarty did not spark an offensive explosion, though, the Red Bulls did blow out Toronto, 5-0, at home on July 6. Aging German Goalkeeper Frank Rost joined club as a third DP, pushing Coundoul back to the bench and sending Sutton to Montreal on loan.

Burdened with nine matches in July, Backe all but forfeited New York’s US Open Cup quarterfinal at Chicago on the 12th. New York ran out the reserves and didn’t get a shot off in the 4-0 loss, sending the hard-core support into a fury over the Red Bulls passing up a chance to win a trophy. The club did win one in North London, however, playing two matches in two days during Henry’s homecoming at the Emirates Cup.

Still, New York’s league play continued to go sideways, posting a 1-2-3 MLS mark in July.

IV: Lost in August

As the summer wore on, it became evident that missing Luke Rodgers (out with Plantar Fasciitis) severely hampered the New York offense. Agudelo and Henry rarely were on the same page, as the young U.S. star frequently ran into the Frenchman’s lanes, clogging any decent starting opportunities. A 0-3 defeat at Salt Lake was the worst result of the season, followed by draws against beatable Chicago and New England sides.

Soler signed Stephane Auvray from Kansas City hoping to find a midfielder that could spark the attack. Mercifully, hurricane Irene washed out the Red Bulls’ late August home date with the league-leading Galaxy, a match New York certainly would have lost against a superior opponent. New York in August: 0-1-2.

V: The Fall of New York

With 20 days between a 2-2 draw at New England and the September 10 home date with Vancouver, Red Bulls fans were hoping that rested and healthier team (Solli and Rodgers returned) would surely swamp the bottom-dwelling Whitecaps. Saturday night at Red Bull Arena, New York conceded the first goal for the 10th time this season, and needed a stellar volley 20 minutes from time to salvage a 1-1 draw.

With seven matches to play, New York is now on the outside of the playoff zone, currently 6th in a 9-team East and 11th in an 18-team league. The Red Bulls now have less than a 50 percent chance of making the postseason, and with a team that boasts arguably a collection of the best players in MLS, the lack of on-field success has been nothing short of astonishing.

New York finishes the season at Dallas, home for RSL and Portland, at Toronto, home for LA, at Sporting Kansas Cith and home for Philadelphia. To ensure a playoff spot, The Red Bulls will need at least 11 points in the final 7 matches, but with two wins in its last 19, it looks like 2011 will be “the season of blank stares” until it mercifully ends on the 20th of October.

Mark Fishkin has been a MetroStars/Red Bulls season ticket holder since 1996. A longtime member of the Empire Supporters Club (ESC), Mark is a host and producer of the two year-old weekly Seeing Red podcast. Follow him on twitter: @MarkFishkin.

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