By AVI CREDITOR
WASHINGTON — A turnover here. An errant pass there. A triple-team gone wrong here. A flat-footed defender there.
The New York Red Bulls produced one calamitous error after another in Sunday night's 4-1 loss to D.C. United, one that exposed the club's glaring lack of defensive depth after a rash of injuries and one notable suspension have left the high-spending side short of solutions.
"I would say that we gave away four goals," Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said. "Every goal from D.C., it's one pass, goal – all four of them. It's absolutely phenomenal that they don't need to combine anything."
For a pair of them, there was no pass involved at all, just horrible giveaways. Chris Pontius scored two of his three goals directly off turnovers, first stripping Thierry Henry before lacing a blast from outside the area to open the scoring and then picking off clearance attempt by reserve centerback Tyler Ruthven and coasting by Victor Palsson and a seemingly stationary Markus Holgersson to cap off his hat trick.
"It happened so fast sometimes, but it’s just little things and mental lapses that if we play a team that has good finishers, those goals happen," said rookie left back Connor Lade, who made his first MLS start in the place of the injured Roy Miller. "We are going to have to learn from these things and start putting a more consistent effort together."
Without the suspended Rafa Marquez and the injured Teemu Tainio and Wilman Conde to clog the center of the field, the Red Bulls were gutted by a D.C. attack that had its way throughout the rivalry match. As if the club wasn't thin enough in the back, starting centerback Stephen Keel was taken off at halftime as a precaution after feeling tightness in his back, making way for Ruthven to make his MLS debut.
"We are a little bit short-handed," Backe said. "If you look at it, normally the centerline is usually the most important in a team, and we were missing Conde, Miller, Marquez and Tainio. Anyhow, these are the guys now that need to step up. We’ll see if we can turn this around already for next Saturday."
The Red Bulls' depleted depth was not lost on D.C., which did what any team sensing blood in the water would do: Exploit the weaknesses.
"I think New York came here with a little bit of a watered-down team, and it showed at times," D.C. coach Ben Olsen said. "Throughout the season, you’re going to have games like this where you’re playing a team that's a little down, and you have to step up and take advantage of that."
One player D.C. seemed to target repeatedly was Holgersson, a Swedish international brought in to be a stablizing force in central defense. Instead, he has repeatedly come into the spotlight for the wrong reasons, though Backe said his play is more a product of the midfield not providing enough resistance, thus leaving defenders like Holgersson exposed far too often.
"I would say it's quite OK what he's done," Backe said. "I think it's more that we haven't had the balance on midfield, because they are under pressure all the time, the back four, if the midfield can't do a better defending job."
The midfield as constructed might not be playing up to par, but as for altering his tactics — to play more negatively and pile the bodies in the back to provide cover while removing a striker from up top — Backe said that's not likely to be in the cards. Not with Henry and Kenny Cooper combining for 15 goals in seven games, even though the two barely linked up against United.
"We need to do the best possible the next three, four, five games until the other guys are back, picking up points," Backe said. "We just need to work with our defending game. We could play with a little bit more defending, but then you play only with one striker, and with these guys scoring, it should be a little bit tough to get Kenny, for example, on the bench.
"On the road, we probably have to look at that if needed. We can't do it at home. We still need to try and control games at home."
If Backe is going to stay the course tactically, then he has to have his strike tandem come up big every game in order to cover up a porous defense that has given up at least two goals in five of its seven matches and has yet to record a clean sheet. That was far from the case Sunday, when Henry's stellar free kick was little more than a consolation and the French icon and Cooper could not get going enough to make up for the club's glaring weakness.
"I said if we carry on defending the way we do defend, we're going to get punished, and we got punished today," Henry said.