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Despite bright start, Red Bulls in search of answers for porous defense

Keel (Getty Images)


New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe needed two words to describe his team’s defensive effort against the San Jose Earthquakes this weekend. 

"Ball watching."  

While the Red Bulls' offense has erupted for 16 goals through six matches, the defense has been woeful, allowing 10 goals – good for third-most in the league — and the club twice blew one-goal leads at home Saturday, settling for a 2-2 draw with San Jose. Injuries have forced New York to rely on spot starter Stephen Keel and newcomer Markus Holgersson in the heart of their defense, and the duo has simply been unable to click in the back through their four starts as a pair.

"It’s very easy to see our defense must improve," Backe said. 

Holgersson in particular has been the subject of scrutiny. Gaffes like the one against Montreal, where he lost the ball at his feet allowing the speedy Sanna Nyassi to beat him on route to goal, have become a common occurrence for the Swedish international. 

“When you drop your concentration or you’re not in the right position, they are there to score.” Holgersson said. “You have to be there all the time.”

This weekend, he was exposed yet again, as Keel closed in on his marker, leaving Holgersson to either backtrack and cover the void left behind or play an offside trap. He did neither, as he was caught in an indecisive moment, allowing Chris Wondolowski to send Khari Stephenson behind the Swedish defender and in on net.

“I’ve let in a few goals that shouldn’t be goals but, yeah, there’s always going to be mistakes,” Holgersson said. “I try to focus and be a leader in the defense.”

Coming into the season, the Holgersson/Keel pairing wasn’t the centerback tandem the Red Bulls had in mind.  Defensive anchor Wilman Conde missed the first two matches of the season as he continued his recovery after a year away from the game. Once made available, he was key in New York’s turnaround, giving the team a stabile presence on the backline. Of course, missing in-game action for such a long period of time has made the Colombian centerback prone to injuries. His latest injury, a groin strain, will keep him out of action through April and into May. 

Other injuries have hampered the Red Bulls as well. Midfield stopper Teemu Tainio has been out with a knee sprain and isn’t expected back until May. Though Backe labeled Roy Miller’s knee injury as “soft,” one can never tell what his health may be after an aggressive scissor tackle from behind by San Jose winger Marvin Chavez sent him out of the match. And then there is the future of Rafa Marquez, who may or may not feel the wrath of the MLS Disciplinary Committee after his tackle of Shea Salinas. 

Certainly, these situations can complicate matters. In the eyes of Dax McCarty and team captain Thierry Henry, though, they don’t do enough to explain the team’s defensive ineptitude. 

“Honestly, we’re just not tough enough on defense. That’s not just the defenders, it’s everyone,” McCarty said. “You go up by a goal twice in the first half (against San Jose) and can’t hold onto a lead. It’s really just elementary stuff.”

Added Henry: "No excuses. It’s enough now. Conde wasn’t playing – whatever. Every time we concede goals, sometimes the team doesn’t even mark players. When you look at the second goal – come on. You score two goals at home, it should be a done deal.

“I do believe when we have Conde in the squad, we do look way stronger. Again, I am not having a go at anybody. It is a squad and you have got to perform when the boss is calling you. Having said that, we know we can score at any time. But we also know somehow we concede. Right now it looks like if you come and play here and you play us away, it looks like every time you’re going to have a chance. We need to correct that."


  1. I understand why they let Mendes go during the summer (money) but the reality is you can’t replace a guy that can slot in at any position across your back four and as defensive midfielder in a pinch. It would be such a luxury to have him now considering Conde is injured and how poorly Holgersson is playing.

  2. haha. BOOOOOOM! That was frickin hilarious. Awesome man. Good eye…and judging by the look on Keel’s face, he saw TOO MUCH. (or is it “two much”??)

  3. Who does he replace him with? Conde’s injured, Keel, your main back up is already playing. There is no utility guy like Mendez anymore. Marquez is going to be suspended. I may be mistaken but there aren’t any other center backs on the roster right?

  4. “New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe needed two words to describe his team’s defensive effort against the San Jose Earthquakes this weekend.

    “Ball watching.””

    Based on the evidence of the photo, I’d say that’s a pretty sound analysis….

  5. If Backe hates Americans so much, why does he play Colorado’s own Keel in the back and fortify the net with a 12-year old kid from Yonkers?

  6. Seriously though. For all the belly aching about Tim Ream last year I think it may be safe to say that Holgersson has had more mistakes in 6 games than Ream in 2 years.

  7. Give the benchies a chance to play… they can’t do any worse than the guys on the field. Rafa will be out a min of 3-5 games for his latest “stunt”. With all the injuries, might as well play the guys who are on the payroll and show up every day for practice.

  8. This is not a mystery. Holgersson is personally responsible for half of those goals. Replace him with someone who isn’t the worst defender of all time, and the defense is fine.

    This type of thing drives me insane. It’s blatantly obvious to anyone with half a brain but Backe will keep trotting Holgersson out there and pretending it’s some kind of impossible puzzle to solve.

    RBNY defense-Holgersson=a pretty good defense. How do these guys get paid to do their jobs so badly?

  9. Forget adding a forward. We need another CB. Or two. Conde is always injured, Holgersson is shaky, and Keel is a career backup. We need more options. After that, we can think about an attacking midfielder, which we need since Tainio and Rafa are always out.


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