2:45 pm Apr. 23, 2012
The New York Red Bulls are just two weeks removed from a stretch of three games in which they looked like the best team in Major League Soccer history, powered by the dual scoring threat of Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper.
It turns out, sadly, that they can't play defense.
Yes, when the Red Bulls lost on a rainy Sunday evening in Washington to DC United, 4-1, they were not at full strength. Defenders Roy Miller and Wilman Conde, along with midfielders Teemu Tainio and Rafa Marquez, were all out: The first three are battling injuries, while Marquez began serving a three-game suspension for his latest episode of unsportsmanlike conduct.
The replacements simply weren't up to the task of stopping DC. The talented Connor Lade made his first start in Miller's place, and had some bright moments. But he also provided the home team with an easy chance on a terrible clearance attempt right near the New York goal.
The news got worse at halftime, as Stephen Keel, himself a backup pressed into duty, left injured, forcing New York to play Tyler Ruthven for the first 45 minutes of his M.L.S. career. Ruthven had a few moments, but he, like Lade, looked overmatched in his time on the pitch.
It is far from clear when New York can expect their injured defenders to return, particularly Conde, the finest central defender they have. The former M.L.S. Best XI defender battled injuries for several years before the Red Bulls acquired him, and he's consistently been hurt since arriving in New York. He is every bit the key to the Red Bulls contending in 2012 that Luke Rodgers, the undersized attacker who played in all but one of New York's victories in 2011, was last season.
In the meantime, the Red Bulls need to piece together a defense while waiting until June 27 for the new transfer window to open, allowing them to add help from the outside. The dynamism of the Cooper-Henry attack means they have a puncher's chance to win every match. But the porous defense means that no lead will be safe and, contrary to what the Red Bulls looked like a mere couple of weeks ago, they aren't world-beaters after all.