BY DAVE MARTINEZ
Have the Red Bulls finally stumbled upon the right formula for their backline? That is the hope of Coach Hans Backe and his men after this Saturday’s encouraging draw against Sporting KC.
“I would guess so because Brandon [Barklage] is out definitely for the Philly game, perhaps the rest of the season,” the Red Bulls boss said. “Wilman [Conde] will be out at least one week more. The way they played today it looks like this is the back four we have to use.”
The absence of Conde and Barklage forced the team to trot out the centerback odd couple of Markus Holgersson and Rafa Marquez in the heart of their defense flanked by Heath Pearce on the left and Connor Lade on the right. For Pearce, it was his first time playing in his natural left sided position since the Red Bulls Open Cup loss against the Harrisburg City Islanders earlier this season.
Their contributions made it a quiet night for Luis Robles who faced all of one moment of danger late in the game against Kansas City’s high octane offense, and much of the credit for it was heaped upon Designated Player Rafa Marquez who made his first start since limping off the field at Gillette Stadium on September 22nd.
“I can assure Rafa didn’t pay me anything (to say this), but did you see the difference when he plays in the back?” Thierry Henry remarked. “I want Rafa to play in the back. I don’t know if you saw that. It calms everybody down, taking the ball off the strikers, coming out, passing it, pinging the ball on the right, pining the ball on the left, playing me in behind – that’s quality.
“Rafa is the key,” he continued. “If Rafa is fit and plays the way he was playing in the back, everybody can calm down. He has the ball and he can play well for us.”
Pearce praised Marquez’s play as well, crediting him for easing his transition back to the left side. “It’s a position I am familiar with and to go back to that position playing next to Rafa Marquez makes it really easy,” he said. “He plays a style that I play when I play left center back. I know that I can commit and stay tight on the guy in front of me because he is covering behind me. Anytime you have a guy like that you are playing next to with the experience that he has makes it pretty easy to do your job and you don’t have to worry so much about what’s going on around you. You can focus on the task at hand and that’s winning your individual battle.”
The former Mexican Captain’s impact wasn’t lost on Backe either. “I am also very pleased with Rafa’s performance today as a centerback,” he stated, “And Heath, he has played that many, many years in Europe. I remember when I saw him at Denmark. He is familiar with the position at left back.”
With a reliable backline, the Red Bulls midfield and forwards were able to take the game to Kansas City in a way they simply haven’t done in their previous two encounters. By night’s end, the home side controlled the match, seizing possession to the tune of 64 to 36% and enjoying a shots on target advantage of 5 to 1.
That’s not to say all of the defensive responsibility stopped at the backline. A makeshift midfield helped pad the effort as well. Dax McCarty started in an uncustomary left sided position, with Tim Cahill and Teemu Tainio manning the middle and Lloyd Sam owning the right. Though unorthodox, the foursome proved to be effective given time and space.
“They are the best team in the league defensively; there is no question about it,” McCarty acknowledged. “(Saturday) we carved them open three or four times. Maybe sometimes we played the ball around them creating some good chances but other times we played more direct and it was effective. Kenny (Cooper) was a beast holding up the ball for us and creating chances. Tim Cahill wins a lot of second balls. Lloyd is very dangerous one on one and I just try to put myself in good spots when I’m playing out wide. I think it was a very complete performance for us like I said.
“We were very tight, very compact and we pressured them. We gave them a little bit of a dose of their own medicine and we pressured them all over the field.”
“We have our ups and downs since the beginning of the season but like I said to you, forget about the result,” Henry implored. “It’s more about the way we played tonight. We looked pretty confident at times and not in danger. That’s one of the most important things sometimes when you play a game and that’s very reassuring.
“Hopefully we can carry on this way.”