By Paul Gardner
Exactly what it is about the Red Bulls -- to say nothing of their virtually forgotten ancestors the MetroStars -- that enables them to look one day like a promising, if not formidable team, and then turn, almost overnight, into a pathetic scrambling muddle, I can't even begin to work out.
We’ve been watching these repeated transmogrifications for nigh on 17 years now and no plausible explanation has so far surfaced. This weekend, the shift from Red Bulls to Dead Bulls happened with baffling rapidity.
The Bulls’ first half against the San Jose Earthquakes was not exactly stellar, but it had plenty of good soccer in it. They got a nice early goal -- in the fifth minute -- from Kenny Cooper, scored off a neat assist from Thierry Henry. And Dax McCarty later hit a second.
There was, of course, the complication that on each occasion, the Quakes were able to tie the score. Their goals looked pretty good to me, well worked, well taken, by Rafael Baca and, of course, the pesky Chris Wondolowski.
So it was 2-2 at the half, but the Red Bulls looked the more dangerous, the more incisive team, and I’d have put money on them to rather easily control the second half. Particularly as the Quakes lost two starters to injury -- neither center back Victor Bernardez nor midfielder Shea Salinas came out for the second half. More about Salinas’ injury in a moment.
Whatever Coach Hans Backe, or Thierry Henry, or whoever it is who spouts off in the Bulls’ locker room these days, said at halftime, it worked like a performance-deflating drug.
Suddenly the Bulls looked apathetic, uninterested, unable to possess the ball, incapable of putting together anything that looked like a dangerous passing move. Some of the “passing” out of the back -- by Stephen Keel and Markus Holgersson particularly -- was inexcusably, and consistently, awful. Henry gave us, not for the first time, his excellent rendition of the Invisible Man.
Postgame, Backe admitted “it was not one of our best performances.” Oh dear, how many times have we heard variations on that line from a whole succession of MetroStar/Red Bull coaches? The defense, said Backe, that was the problem. Not very good. Maybe that could be blamed on the absence of the injured Wilman Conde. But not really. Backe chose the two center backs who played -- in particular he brought in this season the Swede Holgersson, who simply does not look up to the job.
Henry told us, in rather arrogant fashion (a posture that he seems to enjoy) that he had seen all this coming, that he had warned “the other day, if you let a team like San Jose have the opportunities they’re going to punish you.” A pretty meaningless statement, really. Why wouldn’t San Jose -- or any other team -- punish you for playing like crap? But when Henry stopped trying to impress with his foresight, he came sharply to the point: “You have to give credit to San Jose. We didn’t touch the ball in the second half.”
In fact, San Jose let the Bulls off the hook, by playing too conservatively in the second half. The game was there for them to win -- they shunned the opportunity against a palpably jittery Red Bull defense.
But I think Backe and Henry are wrong to pin all the blame on the defense. Fact is, the Red Bulls only have a working midfield when Henry decides to play. When he evaporates, when serious midfield duties fall on the shoulders of a journeyman player like Dax McCarty, such an arrangement can only exaggerate the inadequacies of Keel and Holgersson behind him.
Next Sunday the Bulls -- either Red or Dead, we won’t know until they start moving about on the field -- will take on D.C. United. And they may well have further defensive problems by then. Surely the newly hyper-active MLS Disciplinary Committee will take severe action against Rafa Marquez and suspend him for his wanton assault on Salinas -- which knocked the San Jose player out of the game with a fractured collar bone. How referee Ricardo Salazar missed Rafa’s brutal bear hug on Salinas as he brought him crashing to the ground defies belief.
Such a suspension would seem to satisfy a demand for justice, a desire that Marquez not be allowed to get away scot-free. It would do that, certainly. But this use of a sort of Star Chamber to re-referee games after they’ve been played raises some tricky questions. It will do nothing for the confidence of the referees if they are expected to become accustomed to seeing their judgments and decisions altered, even overturned by in cameradecisions.
Nor, one expects, will it encourage referees to be decisive if they know that the final word on calling fouls is not theirs, but belongs instead to a committee looking leisurely at slow motion replays.
The danger is that such an arrangement cannot persist for too long before the caliber of referees will be judged solely on the extent of their agreement, or disagreement, with the Disciplinary Committee’s decisions. Which will make it starkly clear that the referees’ decisions are of secondary importance. Not a desirable situation.