Confronted with a big test, the Red Bulls take a nap

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Thierry Henry, suited up. (Images via joscarfas at flickr)
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The New York Red Bulls entered Wednesday night's Eastern Conference showdown against Sporting Kansas City with a lot going for them. They had a healthy roster, strong recent form and an undefeated home record.

They were hyper-aware that the one danger they had yet to face down was a tendency to give up early goals. And a win would have put them atop the Eastern Conference, with the chance to close out a regular-season conference crown absent help from any other team.

Naturally, they put together one of their worst performances of the season, dropping a 2-0 decision before 10,286 dispirited fans, and never really threatened to make a game of things.

“Of course I’m surprised, it’s a big game,” coach Hans Backe said in his postgame press conference. “We’re fighting to be number one and win, but they’re number one. But we played so slow and couldn’t come out in our attacking game, of course everyone is disappointed."

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Sporting Kansas City managed both goals within the opening 20 minutes, and unlike a 2-0 deficit the Red Bulls faced last month against Portand, that was asking too much of the offense. The difference between rallying against bottom-feeder Portland's defense, and Kansas City's unit, was stark.

"I thought we created chances, but we didn’t score," a somber Thierry Henry said to reporters following the match. "I said to you so many times, that you’re not going to be able to come back sometimes in a game like that and that happened tonight. Kansas City was better than us. They attacked the game better than us and like I said to you, once again we found ourselves 2-0 down after 20 minutes. I said to you against Columbus that it was bound to happen, and it happened tonight. I think saying that we created in the second half, maybe big chances always like a toe on the line or something or some crosses. But, that’s not good enough if you go and play against Kansas City and turn it down after 20 minutes, it’s hard."

For Tim Cahill, who started at forward but didn't get many opportunities, the loss reflected not on Kansas City, but on the Red Bulls entirely.

I don’t think there’s anything special to their team," an irritated Cahill said following the match. "I think we didn’t perform tonight. Compared to the game on Saturday, we’ve got to be really disappointed to what happened tonight. They won, credit to them. There’s not much to say about that game except to put it behind us. That’s definitely not the team I know. We’ve got a lot more fight than that."

The loss puts the Red Bulls five points back of Kansas City with five matches remaining for both teams, including a rematch next month at Red Bull Arena. The Chicago Fire are up a point on the Red Bulls, with a chance to move four points up on Saturday when they host Columbus.

The Red Bulls can get healthy against a New England Revolution team on Saturday that is well out of the playoff chase, followed by a home game against bottom-dwelling Toronto FC on September 29.

But Wednesday's loss could loom as the moment the Red Bulls settled for simply a strong season, instead of taking control of the Eastern Conference. The difference that will make in how difficult a playoff road they face (and how much of it will be on the road) in an effort to win the franchise's first M.L.S. Cup is significant.