New York Red Bulls’ decision to relieve Erik Soler of his general manager duties with three games of the Major League Soccer regular season remaining sparked confusion among the club’s supporters. It shouldn’t have.
The decision has been blamed for Saturday’s 2-0 home loss to Chicago Fire that relegated the Red Bulls to fourth place in the Eastern Conference and leaves them in a battle to remain in the play-off picture. It shouldn’t be.
Hans Backe labeled the game as the Red Bulls’ biggest of the season. The Swedish head coach responded by sending his team out in a typically conservative formation that immediately handed the initiative to the visitors. Therein lies the real problem that has dogged New York’s travels throughout the year and has now seeped into their home games at Red Bull Arena.
It’s a stretch to attribute the changing of a front office suit to diminishing player performances. Selecting a flat-footed, injury prone center-half to play left-back against a speedy winger carries a more direct effect. Choosing an average full-back to supply width on the right of midfield exacerbates the problem. Allowing a star striker with an equal likelihood for producing the sublime and the supine to frequently drop behind the midfield, isolating his partner against two commanding center-backs, simply blunts the team’s cutting edge.
Backe’s options were slightly curbed by a hamstring injury to new arrival Lloyd Sam, the 28-year-old Englishman who has shown a willingness to take on opponents during his limited minutes. Summer signing Sebastien Le Toux remained on the substitutes’ bench for the fifth time in New York’s past six games as Backe opted for the more defensive-minded Jan Gunnar Solli at right-midfield.
Dax McCarty retained his place in the holding role despite Rafael Marquez’ latest return from injury – a rare meritocratic decision by Backe, who has frequently shunted his best-performing but less-heralded midfielder to accommodate the malingering Mexican designated player.
Frank Klopas’ Chicago team has hit its stride since the summer arrivals of former star Chris Rolfe and Dutch designated player Sherjill MacDonald. The Fire lined up in a 4-4-1-1 system with Rolfe supporting MacDonald from a deeper lying position. Patrick Nyarko provided raw pace down the right side. Uruguayan World Cup star Alvaro Fernandez was given the freedom to drift infield from the left touchline.
Rolfe Excels In Dropping Off While Henry Stays Too Deep
The scorching speed that once allowed Red Bulls’ captain Thierry Henry to blitz past the world’s best defenses has long faded. His ability to fashion a goal out of nothing has not. That makes it imperative for New York that the former Arsenal and Barcelona forward stays high up the field where he can make the most of his touches. Yet Henry often assumes deeper positions that do little for his performance or for his team.
The Frenchman has been in MLS for over two years now. He still doesn’t realize that time in midfield is a luxury that doesn’t exist. His dallying from kick-off allowed Rolfe to strip the ball away on the halfway line, and Logan Pause made a similar tackle just two minutes later.
Henry spent much of the opening 45 minutes dropping into his own half, in line with or even behind McCarty and Tim Cahill, leaving Kenny Cooper to fruitlessly contest high balls against Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry. The Chicago center-backs coolly retained possession by finding Pause and Daniel Paladini. The Fire duo had acres of room to turn given the hesitancy of New York’s midfield and outside backs to quickly push up.
Rolfe’s display was in stark contrast to Henry. The 29-year-old frequently drops into midfield to link up the play, but never deeper. His layoffs and passes are also followed by immediate sprints to join MacDonald on the front line. That gives Chicago’s wide players at least two options around the box as they approach from the flanks. Rolfe forced Red Bulls’ goalkeeper Luis Robles into an uncomfortable first save on six minutes after seizing on Markus Holgersson’s flimsy clearing header to fire a swerving, dipping shot on goal.
Henry Survives To See Second Half, Conde Doesn’t
Backe and Soler have assembled the most expensive roster in MLS history. They may also have created the slowest. Wilman Conde exemplified New York’s plodding during an abominable first half that ended with the former Chicago defender being hooked in favor of rookie Connor Lade. It’s a virtual prerequisite in today’s soccer for wide defenders to possess the speed and willingness to get forward and join the attack. Modern requirements, it seems, have yet to arrive in Harrison, N.J.
Nyarko strolled past the Colombian on the edge of the Red Bulls’ box on two minutes before cutting the ball back toward Fernandez. An alert Solli swept away the danger on his six-yard line. Conde’s languidness also undermined the Red Bulls’ play during the offensive phase. Henry picked out a delightful ball into space on the left wing on seven minutes that begged for a modern, galloping full-back to fasten on to it. Instead, Jalil Anibaba easily recovered to intercept before Conde arrived to keep the move flowing.
A yellow card for Conde on 14 minutes for hauling down the escaping Nyarko hastened his half-time departure as the Ghanaian tormented his former teammate time and again.
Henry should have joined Conde in the players’ box for the second half following his tempestuous rage at referee Ricardo Salazar as the players left the field. The league’s highest paid player was cautioned for cynically ending Rolfe’s breakaway on 43 minutes, and his frustration boiled over when Salazar ignored his appeal for a free kick during the final move of the half. Salazar infamously dismissed Henry following an impetuous incident with Adam Moffat in Portland last year. He kept his red card in his pocket this time when a dismissal seemed warranted.
It’s not too long ago that New York’s play was characterized by the scampering of wide midfielders Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere, supported by adventurous full-backs Solli and Roy Miller, fashioning chances for Henry, Juan Pablo Angel, Luke Rodgers or Juan Agudelo. Backe’s side has struggled to find its identity throughout this campaign.
Still, the Red Bulls improved in the second half as Henry stayed closer to Chicago’s penalty box. Cahill chested the ball into his skipper’s path on 57 minutes after Lindpere and Lade linked down the left side. The Frenchman’s shot was deflected wide for a corner, which resulted in Cahill’s back post header landing comfortably at Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson’s feet.
Chicago remained dangerous on the break though. Friedrich had almost given his team the lead four minutes earlier after shepherding the ball away from his own box before continuing his surge into New York’s penalty area. The former Hertha Berlin defender met MacDonald’s cross with an instinctive left-foot volley that flew too close to Robles to find the net.
Positive Changes From Klopas Earn Valuable Three Points
Klopas enhanced his managerial reputation on 60 minutes with a brave substitution that showed he’s not beholden to big names and big reputations. Fernandez had been playing well cutting in from the left side of midfield, but his Greek-born coach replaced him with Wells Thompson to ensure more permanent width. It was the sort of enterprising switch seldom seen by Red Bull Arena patrons, and Klopas earned his reward five minutes later when MacDonald broke the deadlock.
The Ajax youth product dragged Heath Pearce out of New York’s back line as he dropped into his own half to flick Friedrich’s pass to Rolfe near the halfway line. Pearce overcompensated in his recovery, sprinting beyond Holgersson and Lade to provide space for a return ball from Rolfe. The Fire playmaker would surely have had nowhere to go had Pearce kept New York’s defensive line in tact and allowed MacDonald to run offside.
Instead, the Dutchman took three touches to advance toward goal before slotting an unerring finish beyond Robles.
Backe, ever the reactionary, brought on Le Toux for the ineffective Solli and introduced Marquez for Pearce. Hopeful long balls gave way to slightly more accurate, but still hopeful, long balls. The Fire continued to favor guile and craft and they sealed the win on 78 minutes.
Cooper’s clumsy first touch conceded possession to Chicago near the halfway line and Paladini skipped past McCarty’s desperate lunge to put New York’s retreating defense under pressure. The former Carolina Railhawks midfielder stabbed an exquisite pass between Holgersson and Brandon Barklage with the outside of his right boot into the path of MacDonald, who had sprinted from behind Holgersson’s shoulder. Marquez saw the run coming but was powerless to stop it. MacDonald swept his first-time shot on the slide under Robles to lift Chicago into second place in the East.
The unheralded Fire would now be leading the Eastern Conference on goals scored had it not been for last Wednesday’s aberration at home to Philadelphia Union. New York, by contrast, faces a slight risk of slipping out of the play-offs. Backe’s side might have to settle for an opening wildcard game for the second consecutive season when the Supporters’ Shield was a realistic target.
Sept. 20, 2012 — Sporting Shatter Red Bulls’ Home Record At A Canter
Aug. 30, 2012 — Crude Awakening For D.C. As Red Bulls Snatch Point
Aug. 28, 2012 – Red Bulls Frustrate Sporting In Tie, Almost Grab Win
Aug. 8, 2012 — Backe, Red Bulls Chance For Redemption Against Houston
July 18, 2012 — Henry’s Searing Volley Scorches The Fire