BY DAVE MARTINEZ
There is a bittersweet feeling in the air at Red Bull Arena. Though today's press conference to officially announce the signing of Tim Cahill will surely nab headlines, a disappointing loss in Montreal will undoubtedly bubble beneath the surface.
The Everton legend will add a valuable option to the Red Bulls attack – there is no question about that – but this weekend’s 3-1 defeat at Stade Saputo only magnified the glaring issues the Red Bull’s have on defense.
“We didn’t show up the first five minutes of the second half,” Coach Hans Backe observed after the loss. “You concede two goals on the road and you lose the game. Overall, it’s three terrible mistakes. You can’t concede goals like this. You lose games and it’s very disappointing.”
“I think we got really surprised in the second half,” Sebastian Le Toux noted. “Having a quick goal against us never really helped. Work on this momentum caused a second goal and we were caught sleeping. It was kind of our fault for the goals we gave up today.”
Though New York has been able to cope with crippling losses to their roster, Backe has warned all season about how unsustainable that scenario is. Injuries to regular starters such as Heath Pearce, Roy Miller, Wilman Conde, Markus Holgersson, Brandon Barklage, Jan Gunnar Solli, Stephen Keel and Rafa Marquez have forced the Red Bulls to mix and match their backline.
As a result, a fatigued New York backline looked out of sorts as they trotted out their seventh different defensive front in eight consecutive matches this weekend.
Even as some pieces on the team have worked their way back to health, they are in no way guaranteed to play at an optimal level. Solli, who made his return from injury, was torched on two separate occasions by an aggressive Impact attack and is a prime example of that.
Though he may have been the scapegoat on this particular evening, Solli was hardly the lone problem. The team’s record (11-6-3) reflects success, but it glosses over some important and staggering deficiencies.
- The Red Bulls have fielded 11 different defensive lineups over 22 matches this year.
- The team’s most successful unit this season was the emergency grouping of Barklage, Holgersson, Tyler Ruthven and Connor Lade who registered three victories and three shutouts in three appearances together.
- The combination of Solli, Holgersson, Keel and Miller have made the most appearances together of any grouping (4). They combined for a 1-2-1 record.
- Though New York is first place in the East, they hold the unenviable distinction of being only one of two teams currently in the playoff proper to have given up more than thirty goals (32). The Los Angeles Galaxy, who have only recently begun gathering themselves after a rough start to the season, are fifth in the West and have conceded 35.
- In the broader scheme of things, there are only five of the league’s 19 teams who have conceded as many or more goals as New York: Toronto (38), Portland (36), Los Angeles (35), Montreal (33), and Colorado (32). FC Dallas is the only other team who has given up more than 30 goals (31).
- Thanks to New York’s defensive deficiencies (and his own injuries) Heath Pearce has yet to appear in his natural left back position since joining the team back in May.
Is it any wonder the team was speaking to Alessandro Nesta to shore up their backline?
Now, for all the problems on defense, New York’s juggernaut offense has played a vital role in soothing those issues. Currently, the Red Bulls are third in the league in total offense scoring 38 goals, bested only by San Jose (45) and the Galaxy (39). The addition of Cahill will only enhance their threat up top.
But what of the defense? A few weeks ago, General Manager Erik Soler shot down the idea that New York would dip into the market for a stop gap solution. With big names on the payroll (Conde, Marquez, Pearce and Holgersson amongst others), perhaps there is no need to do so. Still, the Red Bulls have not been able to show a fully healthy backline all season.
While they continue to pad the offense, they are taking a mighty gamble on the defensive end. Whether that proves to be an effective strategy remains to be seen.