MLS' biggest disappointment may be New York's Red Bulls
This season's Red Bulls squad is easily the biggest disappointment in MLS
What's wrong? Subpar defense, questionable coaching could be to blame
A win against Galaxy on Saturday would be a step toward a season turnaround
In the summer of 1999, the editors of Sports Illustrated gave me one of those awkward, but secretly fun assignments: Spend some time with the fans and leaders of "the worst pro team in America," the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, and produce a story about it. Writing about a laughably bad sports franchise is like reading a well-done review of an awful movie. There's a guilty pleasure involved, and the MetroStars fans I spoke to didn't disappoint, showing the gallows humor of the long-suffering supporter who knew that someday all the pain would be worth it.
But here we are in 2011, 12 years later, and Gotham's MLS outfit still has zero trophies (Sorry, this year's "Emirates Cup" exhibition doesn't count). A lot of things have changed since '99. Red Bull bought the team, renamed it the New York Red Bulls, built a $200 million soccer stadium and invested in big-name players like Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez. Yet this year's Red Bulls are easily the biggest disappointment in MLS heading into Sunday's star-power showdown with Los Angeles (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
New York was the consensus preseason pick to win the Eastern Conference, not least because it had two proven global names (Henry and Márquez), rising U.S. national-teamers (Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo), and dependable threats out wide (Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere). And while Henry leads the league in goals (12), the team itself has been a disaster, going 6-6-14 and winning just twice in its last 19 games -- with those two wins coming against league doormats Toronto and New England.
Even in MLS' embarrassingly forgiving postseason format, in which 10 of 18 teams reach the playoffs, New York is on the outside looking in based on points per game, tied for 11th as of Thursday with Portland. If the Red Bulls fail to make the playoffs after spending so much money and generating such high expectations, you would have to include them with the 2008 Los Angeles Galaxy as the biggest flops in MLS history.
Let's be clear: New York is capable of playing quality soccer. In fact, one of the best games of this or any MLS season took place the last time the Red Bulls played L.A., a 1-1 tie on May 7. That affair had a big-game feel and a real buzz of intensity throughout, in large part because it included players like Henry, David Beckham and Landon Donovan on their A-games. Add new L.A. striker Robbie Keane into the mix, and Saturday's rematch in New Jersey could deliver again. But if the Red Bulls can't take advantage of their home field and beat the Galaxy (which has the league's best record), it will only continue NYRB's long slide.
What's wrong with New York? For starters, the defense has been surprisingly awful, giving up 37 goals, more than any other team with a chance of reaching the playoffs except Portland (The Galaxy, by contrast, has allowed only 20). Márquez, in particular, has been subpar this season, looking slow and hardly like a former defensive stalwart for Barcelona's European champions. The goalkeeper position has been a malaise of mediocrity, from Frank Rost (now injured) to Bouna Coundoul to Greg Sutton.
Nor should coach Hans Backe escape blame. His unwillingness to use his substitutions, his reliance on the unconvincing midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy, his role in acquiring and then trading Dwayne De Rosario (who's lighting it up in D.C. now): Backe's questionable moves have changed perceptions of him. A year ago, he seemed to be the rare foreign coach who understood MLS' peculiar rules and succeeded on the field. Now? He's a man in danger of losing his job.
Of course, in MLS redemption is always only a few timely wins away, and that holds true for New York, too. Five of the Red Bulls' last eight regular-season games are at home, and three of those eight foes are below them in the standings: Vancouver, Toronto and Portland. As we've seen so many times, anything can happen if you get into the playoffs. Middle-of-the-pack regular-season teams have won three of the last six MLS Cups, and even New York got all the way to the Cup final in '08 despite barely squeaking into the postseason.
Beating L.A. on Sunday would be a good way to start turning the season around. But one thing hasn't changed since the start of the league: New York is supposed to be one of MLS's flagship franchises. Its fans expect it, and so do the ambitious owners from Red Bull, who've poured millions into facilities and players, only to see their team fighting for the last wildcard spot with D.C. United, Chivas USA and Portland.
We're 16 years into MLS, and New York still has zero trophies. In '99 it was a source of amusement. These days it's just not funny anymore.