Here is a little food for thought for Red Bulls fans still considering writing off the season after Saturday’s 2-0 loss to FC Dallas (and yes, there are some fans jaded enough to do just that after a dozen years of suffering).
The four best starts in club history were last season, when the club started out 5-1-2, 2003, when the team began 5-1-1, and 1999 and 2002, years when the team started 3-1.
Conversely, the worst start in team history is arguably 2000, when the MetroStars began 2-5.
How did those years with strong starts turn out? Last year and 2003 finished with first-round playoff exits, 2002 ended with the team finished with the club missing the playoffs and 1999, as most Red Bulls fans remember too vividly, wound up being the worst year in club history and one of the worst in league history. Coaches were fired at the end of three of four of those seasons.
Oh, and 2000? Yes, you probably remember. It was the best year in club history.
So what does this have to do with Saturday? The look back should serve as a reminder that, in MLS, it isn’t how you start, but how you finish.
No, it doesn’t mean that an early-season slump is going to be the pre-cursor to an MLS Cup run, but if you have been following the Red Bulls this pre-season you are aware that injuries and the club’s delay in making transfer window signings have left the club with several holes in the squad. Holes that head coach Juan Carlos Osorio struggled to cover up on Saturday.
Will he fill them in the coming weeks? The transfer window is about to close and Osorio has a handful of defenders he is considering signing.
The dead horse most folks chose to beat following Saturday’s loss centered around Osorio’s decision to start Chris Leitch ahead of Carlos Mendes in central defense. Leitch wound up being beaten on both of FC Dallas’ goals, leading most to assume that if Mendes had started instead of Leitch then neither goal happens and the Red Bulls escape with a tie.
Don’t you just love logic?
Osorio chose Leitch over Mendes because of continued concerns about Mendes ability to play with the ball at his feet. Mendes has never been a player known for his ability to pass the ball out of the back or control possession under pressure. When he has flourished, he has done so as a destroyer with the physical attributes to pester opposing forwards.
So how did Mendes go from a very good center back in the first half of the 2007 season to a player who has seen two coaches pass him up for other options? When Mendes is on a good team that keeps possession well, he can put himself in good positions and break up the attacks that do come his way. Now, when a team isn’t as good at keeping possession, and Mendes has to keep facing attackers coming at him, mistakes wind up happening.
It is for this reason that Osorio shifted Mendes to right back, where in the three-man defense his main responsibility is to mark. Because of this, Mendes saw the bulk of his pre-season playing time at right back, which played at least some part in Osorio’s decision to go with Leitch at centerback.
Why Leitch at a position he had never played? The belief was that Leitch had the speed and passing ability to deal with the FC Dallas attackers, and that since Cooper and Alvarez aren’t known for their aerial prowess, that Leitch’s weakness in the air wouldn’t be an issue.
Obviously, it became an issue less than a minute into the game, and while Leitch is at fault for letting Alvarez ghost in behind him, rookie Danleigh Borman is also at fault for not closing down FC Dallas midfielder Andres Rocha, who had all sorts of time to size up and strike a perfect floating cross into the penalty area that would have been trouble for any defender, not just a fullback playing out of position at center back.
Saturday’s performance wasn’t just disappointing because of the defense though. The attack struggled badly until a second-half surge that saw the team waste several good chances. Here’s a big revelation: The Red Bulls offense struggled without the best forward in the league. There’s a shock, but what should be remembered is that despite the struggles, the Red Bulls still created chances without Angel and Dane Richards, who should both be back in the coming weeks (Angel could be back for this weekend’s game against New England.)
So is there really a reason to panic? Not really, at least not yet. The club does need some upgrades, but nearly as many as some might believe. With Angel, Richards, Freeman and Parke missing the FC Dallas match, that’s four starters the club was missing.
With a new coach in place and a new player or two who still may join, the Red Bulls will have some early growing pains, but as the past as shown us, early struggles are no reason to panic, just as early success would be no reason to go printing up MLS Cup tickets.