[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Shorn of several stars by injuries and suspensions, New York has won three straight games with solid play in all departments. Three consecutive 1-0 wins does not a transformation make, but the Red Bulls are not turning heads because of their style.
Several teams have already reeled off three straight Ws this season in much more impressive fashion. Sporting Kansas City ran its streak to seven before falling back to earth, the Quakes won a third consecutive match last week by blasting D.C. United, 5-3, and Seattle’s 2-0 triumph in Dallas Wednesday night was its fifth win in a row.
So why the fascination about Coach Hans Backe and the changes he has wrought? First of all, New York is New York, and every facet of the team’s existence is over-analyzed and hyper-examined. Spending big to achieve little draws intense criticism, even though the Red Bulls reached MLS Cup in 2008 and since then have reached the playoffs in two of the three seasons. (They were also pathetic in 2009, which prompted the hiring of Coach Hans Backe.)
Well, it’s impossible to discount the Rafael Marquez Factor, whose $5 million-plus salary is about 10 times the minimum threshold that mandates classification as a Designated Player. He’s just been not worth a DP slot, let alone the multi-million-dollar deal, and if he leaves for a Mexican club during the summer – by which time he will be in the final months of his contract and by FIFA decree eligible to negotiate his own deal – the Red Bulls can sign a replacement who this season will only count one-half of the DP salary-budget charge of $167,500.
Watching Dax McCarty busily working the middle, where Marquez was moved after he proved to be too much of a liability at centerback, is a stark reminder of what works in this league in that position. The best holding mids in MLS are not elegant, graceful players. Oswaldo Alonso, Kyle Beckerman, Daniel Hernandez and Juilo Cesar have some skills, but they help their teams win by covering a lot of ground, jamming up passing lanes, and playing tidy passes.
McCarty didn’t play a flawless game Wednesday as the Red Bulls beat Houston, 1-0, on a blocked clearance that rebounded off Kenny Cooper into the goal (more on that later). Two giveaways in poor spots provided the Dynamo with chances that were squandered. Yet late in the game he lifted a delicate chip over the defense that Juan Agudelo scissor-kicked on frame. He blunted Houston most of the game by winning countless balls by tracking patiently and stepping to the ball at the right moment.
“He’s been huge for us all season, but especially the past three games with a bunch of our guys out,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara said to mlssoccer.com. “Ninety minutes, he brings it. He runs and runs and it helps the back four out so much because he cuts off so much service to their forwards, and again today, he was great.”
McCarty played a central slot during FC Dallas’ run to MLS Cup in 2010, but in a different formation and further upfield with Hernandez behind him in the true holding role. Many observers and fans insist on pigeon-holding central mids into either attacking or defensive roles, but players like McCarty are best doing some of both. The balance depends on the player’s individual ability as well as game situations, tactics, etc.
When D.C. United acquired McCarty, its experiment with him at attacking mid blew up. He’s not as accomplished as Teemu Tainio or as gifted as Marquez, but in the unique demands of MLS, he’s more than capable. That doesn’t mean the Red Bulls can win a title with him in that spot, yet it obviously can’t do it with Marquez, either, unless an attitude conversion is magically performed.
New York is stacked with offensive options – and Cooper’s robust efforts have obviously blossomed from the guile of Thierry Henry -- but had been leaking goals. Criticism rained on the back line, yet good defending starts in midfield; if the middle is porous and the flanks wobbly, opponents will get chances no matter how well the defenders play.
With a few stars out, Backe has gone back to basics, and thus left back Connor Lade, centerback Tyler Ruthven, and right back Brandon Barklageare making the necessary plays party because they’re not fending off wave after wave of attacks. They were helped Wednesday by some appalling passing by the Dynamo, which didn’t find an attacking tempo until midway through the second half.
The young players have also simplified the game for New York’s veterans. Joel Lindpere, never shy to remind us that his best position is in the middle, brings vision and touch along with strength and workrate. Centerback Markus Holgersson has started to perform at the level expected when New York signed him during the winter. Jan Gunnar Solli, who at right back is an attacking delight and defensive nightmare, is using his strengths in midfield.
And for another reason, just look in goal, where Fordham rookie Meara has posted three straight shutouts. The recent past included Bouna Coundoul. Any questions?
Cooper nearly scored again late in the game when he challenged a weak back pass and blocked a clearance that keeper Tally Hall had to save. Cooper still has two-thirds of the season to go but seems revived by commitment and conviction he lost last year in Portland. Like McCarty and many of the Red Bulls, he's playing every game like a guy with something to prove.
The reasons for the Red Bulls’ mini-revival are many and continued success isn’t guaranteed. But no team succeeds without strength down the middle, and McCarty is a major factor in stabilizing what had been a very shaky spine.