1:29 pm Mar. 26, 2012
Shortly before the New York Red Bulls' 4-1 win over the Colorado Rapids in their home opener, their coach, Hans Backe, sounded like he was preparing for his season to be over.
"When I was young, I probably would have felt a little bit more nervous with the pressure and things like that," Backe told ESPN.com. "Now I know I do it my way and if that doesn't succeed, OK, then I get sacked. But if I do it my way and get sacked I have no problem with that. Because this is what I believe in."
It was extraordinarily dark stuff, for this point in a season. But it also reflected the extent of New York's problems in its first two matches, and the level of dissatisfaction from New York's fans about the team's failure to reach failure to reach an elite level in American soccer following the blockbuster summer 2010 signings of Thierry Henry, former star for Arsenal and France, and Rafa Marquez, formerly of Barcelona and still of the Mexican national team.
The Red Bulls had lost their first two matches, first 2-1 at F.C. Dallas, then 2-0 at Real Salt Lake. Both teams are among the better clubs in the Western Conference. But the hallmarks of both losses--failures on set pieces, inexplicable mental mistakes on the defensive end, impotent midfield service to New York's talented strike force--were depressingly familiar. Which explains the crowd of just 21,204 for the Colorado game, suggesting that the Red Bulls will have some work to do even to get fan enthusiasm up to last year's levels.
The result of the game itself was somewhat encouraging, though.
Henry and newcomer Kenny Cooper worked well together up top.
The team's only reliable strike partnership last season consisted of Henry and Luke Rodgers, who is still stuck in England due to a lingering visa issue. The Red Bulls registered a single victory last year without Rodgers in the lineup, and they got off to an 0-2 start without him this year.
But Cooper, who has been battling injuries since landing on the league's Best XI back in 2008, evidently has good chemistry with Henry. And they were made to look especially good on Sunday thanks to the return to the lineup of Rafa Marquez, who had missed the first two matches while serving a suspension for an ugly incident in the first leg of last season's playoffs against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Marquez provided solid service throughout, freeing Henry to stay further upfield. And Marquez's defensive presence was consistently solid, with one exception, when the Rapids scored their lone goal on the kind of defensive lapse he might well have called "infantile" had it been committed by someone else, getting stripped of the ball deep in his own half.
Probably the most encouraging sign of all that the team might be something other than surprisingly bad this year was the debut of Wilman Conde. The bulky central defender had been a star for the Chicago Fire, earning a spot on the M.L.S. Best XI in 2009. He was every bit that player on Sunday, after having missed this season's first two matches due to injury. If Conde stays healthy, pairing him with Markus Holgersson in central defense--another 6'2" defender with strength--should keep opponents from scoring off of set pieces with the regularity that plagued New York last year.
The Red Bulls host the expansion Montreal Impact this Saturday, giving them every chance to even their record on the season. Which ought to give Backe something to talk about other than his odds of getting fired, at least for a little while.