Like so many of the games they've played this season, the New York Red Bulls are leaving their playoff fate until late. With a chance to lock up second place in the East and practically punch their ticket, the team let three critical points slip to the Chicago Fire thanks to a Sherjill MacDonald brace.
The scoreline may be a bit harsher to the Red Bulls than the actual game played out. Neither team showed much attacking prowess in the first half, with the game mostly being fought in the midfield. Each side would find some more chances in the second half, but Chicago made the most of theirs, splitting the NY defense twice inside of 15 minutes to send MacDonald in on scoring runs. With a two goal cushion, Chicago sat back and snuffed out what little was left of the Red Bulls attack.
There is little to praise individually across RBNY's starting XI, but Dax McCarty did strengthen the attack and defense, and Brandon Barklage frequently made Alvaro Fernandez look like a rookie. But elsewhere, performances were dire. Connor Lade was inserted at left back in the second half and had a stinker, getting beat repeatedly by Patrick Nyarko. The team lacked speed on the wings - Lloyd Sam provided that spark last week before his injury, but Jan Gunnar Solli and Joel Lindpere looked pedestrian in his place. And the strike force of Cooper and Henry, who had looked so in sync against Toronto, seemed completely disconnected. Henry's performance was so radically different from his dominance a week ago that during the post-match press conference, a member of the media inquired whether he was injured. (He was not.)
While the players denied it had any impact on their week, it's reasonable to wonder if the front office shakeup had been enough distraction to affect the result. On Tuesday, the team announced that GM Erik Soler had been replaced by Jerome de Bontin, prompting immediate questions about the fate of Hans Backe. With Backe and Soler generally seen as a package deal, the rumor mill ran wild, quickly linking RBNY with former Aston Villa manager Gary MacAllister, as well as Harry "Wheeler Dealer" Redknapp. De Bontin spoke to the media before the game and made it clear that an evaluation of Backe would not be his call (a new Technical Director is being hired), but it's hard to see the timing of this change and ensuing chatter being anything other than a unnecessary distraction.
And so now, the Red Bulls have two games left - a mere six possible points - to improve on their now fourth place position in the East. (DC knocked off Toronto FC 1-0 thanks to some terrible goalkeeping and leapt past RBNY.) The first match, following a short FIFA international break, will see NY host Sporting Kansas City in their final home game of the year. Kansas City, you may recall, broke the NY home undefeated record last month and is widely hailed as the best team in the East. A powerhouse on the road, squeezing three points out of Sporting Kansas City even at home seems like a gargantuan challenge.
A week later, the Red Bulls will head down to Chester to close out the season against the Philadelphia Union. The Union have been eliminated from the playoff picture, but with nothing to play for, they are suddenly finding their form, downing the Chicago Fire 3-1 on the road this past Wednesday and knocking out New England 1-0 on Saturday night. An in-form Union, at home, with the motivation to play spoilers against a spiraling New York side? Those aren't guaranteed points by any stretch.
The Red Bulls will need to dig deep and come up with a win in at least one of these two games (if not both) to avoid being forced into the wildcard play-in game. And should NY fail to get any more points, they could not make the playoffs at all.
Not making the playoffs in a season that's one of the franchise best performances? We hate to break out the cliche, but: that would be so Metro.
New GM Jerome de Bontin on his mission: "Our shareholder back home is fully committed to the sport and fully committed to this team. The hiring of Gerard Houllier - which is something in the US press that was not well covered, and maybe the Red Bull Organization is at fault for not saying too much about who he is or where he comes from - the decision of our shareholders to hire him and put him in charge of global soccer operations is a testament of the commitment of the brand to the sport. Clearly Red Bull has five teams, and two are priorities. The home team in Salzburg, that plays in the first division of the Austrian Bundesliga, and obviously the New York Red Bulls, for which the objective has been clearly described to me as turning this franchise in [to] the top soccer franchise in North America. So attendance will be in many ways a priority. I think for people to come and people to enjoy the project, we have to work one on making the day experience one that they remember, but more importantly we have to make sure that we have a very competitive team, that we play a good game, and that we have results. The two I think go hand in hand."
Coach Hans Backe's on how the game broke out: "They're the wrong teams to lose against, Kansas and Chicago, definitely. I don't think it's any lack of energy - I think we started a little slow the first 10-15, but after the first 10-15 I had a good feeling that we controlled the possession normally. And also created two-three really good chances before they scored. So it's small margins, and they took their chances."
Connor Lade on the mood in the locker room: "It's pretty crappy. We had a big opportunity here to clinch a playoff berth, but we came out and didn't get what we were looking for and we're pretty disappointed."
Brandon Barklage on NY's inconsistency: "It's definitely, definitely worrisome. The only positive I can take out of this game is that we didn't concede an early goal. But we didn't respond like a championship caliber team does, and we paid for it."
Luis Robles on MacDonald's goals: "I think looking back on both goals, we had a breakdown in our back four, and those are the types of goals we have to avoid if we really want to make a deep run into the playoffs. I'll have to look at the replay, the first one looked like a tough call maybe he was offsides, but he did well, he finished well. And then the second one, I came out, and that's just the way it is."
Dax McCarty on bouncing back and improving: "It's one of those games. You take it on the chin, and you go look at the tape to see where we can get better, because obviously we can get better. It's still a work in progress, and there's only two games left in the season, and we have some work to do to get into the playoffs. These last two games are going to be very important, but I think we're used to these games under pressure. We have one game at home, one game on the road - yeah, it's just got to be a little bit better from all of us."
Thierry Henry on the timing of the international break: "No, I don't like it. I would love to have a game in three days to erase that. Obviously you can not do that, but we're going to have to prepare ourselves well, because we all know Kansas City don't concede a lot of goals and they're the best team in the East. It's going to be a difficult game, they showed us already what they can do. But we're going to have to have a go. I mean, that's the only thing we can do. And we also all know it's going to be a tough game away from home at Philly at the end of the season."