Once again for the Red Bulls, it is M.L.S. Cup or bust

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Thierry Henry. (mlssoccer.com)
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This year was supposed to be different for the New York Red Bulls.

After paying scant attention in prior seasons to the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that is supposed to be the American equivalent of England's F.A. Cup, the Red Bulls brought their A game.

Playing most of their starters against the lowly Charleston Battery, they won, 3-0. And then, against the lowly Harrisburg City Islanders on Tuesday night ... they lost. 

Even with Kenny Cooper up front, Heath Pearce and Wilman Conde in defense, starting goalkeeper Ryan Meara and most of the other regulars, the Islanders won, 3-1, to knock the Red Bulls out of the tournament. (For what it's worth, they were without Thierry Henry, who is still recovering from a hamstring injury.)

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The loss is disspiriting for the Red Bulls, since the franchise is still without a trophy dating back to its inception as the Metrostars back in 1996. But allowing the Red Bulls to focus on the task of winning in the regular season and playoffs isn't without its perks.

The time off for Henry, who returned back on May 23 after missing four games, will have given him roughly another month to get healthy heading into the June 17 match against  the Chicago Fire. Henry had been playing at a very high level; he and Cooper were atop the M.L.S. leaderboard in goals at the time of Henry's injury.

The Open Cup also revealed that defender Wilman Conde had shaken off the injuries that had limited him in the early season. Conde played all 120 minutes of the match against Harrisburg. A back line that includes Conde and Pearce should provide New York with ample defending in support of an offense keyed by Cooper and Henry.

It is ironic that the Red Bulls waited until 2012 to start using its regulars in the Open Cup. This is the first Red Bulls team in many years with the kind of depth that would allow them to deploy backups without essentially conceding the matches ahead of time.

But that depth will serve them well in the long M.L.S. season, which stretches until October 27 for the regular season, into November for the playoffs. And it better; a successful trip to the playoffs, complete with M.L.S. Cup victory, is now the only path to a successful season for the Red Bulls, at long last.