By Cesar Diaz - NEW YORK, NY (Sep 20, 2012) US Soccer Players -- On Wednesday night, the Red Bulls had the opportunity to claim the Eastern Conference top spot from Sporting Kansas City. Playing at Red Bull Arena, this was a match between the team with the best MLS home record versus the team with the best road record. With the opportunity to exorcise any doubt from their supporters, the Red Bulls failed as they were methodically broken down by Kansas City.
Despite Wednesday’s night convincing 2-0 loss, the Red Bulls remain in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 14-8-7 record. Prior to Wednesday night’s collapse, the Red Bulls had not lost in five matches. During that stretch, dating from August 10th – September 15th, 2012, the Red Bulls outscored their opponents 11-5.
While the goal difference may be impressive, the reality is that the Red Bulls have not played well during that stretch. In their five matches against Houston, Portland, Kansas City, DC United and Columbus, the Red Bulls rallied in four of those contests to finish with a 3-0-2 record. On paper, everything is great. In context, getting shutout by Sporting wasn't a surprise.
Prior to Kansas City, many in the NY/NJ area had reasons to believe that this may be the Red Bulls' year. Last Saturday, New York throttled the Columbus Crew 3-1, including Thierry Henry’s “olimpico” goal. That was an exclamation point, but it's not New York's regular game.
The Red Bulls are a difficult club to assess. Even in their victories and draws, there have been more negatives to point out than positives. While it’s commendable that the Red Bulls are having a solid season, in the end, soccer is still a game of tactics.
So we’re left with the question, are the Red Bulls contenders or pretenders?
In the three years that Red Bulls manager Hans Backe has managed the club, there isn’t enough evidence to believe they’ll win the MLS Cup anytime soon. His use of substitutions and young talent has been questioned time after time. While the Red Bulls are known for controlling the ball, they’re also infamous for being burnt against counter-attacking squads.
Even though the club has demonstrated resiliency in overcoming an early deficit, there’s no evidence they’ll be able to rally against a top-tier club. Now that Rafa Marquez is back, will he compliment his other defenders of hinder their flow?
Without a doubt, the 'score first and defend' philosophy has produced wins. Yet, I can’t help but wonder how much better the club would be if they simply attacked the net even more aggressively.
With Dax McCarty showing some flair as of late and Tim Cahill adjusting to his role, I believe they’ll be the x-factor on whether the Red Bulls have a successful postseason run or not. Overall, the team needs to capitalize on their opportunities in the scoring area. It's an obvious point, but throughout this season they've squandered their chances.
While Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper have magnificently combined for 27 goals, the rest of the team contributed the other 22 for a total of 49 goals for the season. Even though they are third in scoring, defensively, the Red Bulls have conceded 42 goals. At home, the Red Bulls have outscored their opposition 30-15. On the road, they’re at a 27-19 disadvantage.
As of today, the Red Bulls record stands at 14-8-7. However, it has to be repeated that the majority of those wins happened at Red Bull Arena. 10-1-3 at home, but that's now history after the loss to Kansas City. On the road, the Red Bulls have struggled to find their rhythm as they’ve amassed a 4-7-4 record. To be fair, majority of the clubs contending for a playoff spot have losing records. Only San Jose and Kansas City have winning road records.
One factor behind the Red Bulls success is their ability to hold on a lead. For the season, the Red Bulls are 9-0-3 when they score first. If they’re leading at the half, they’re 7-0-0. When they’ve lead in the 75th minute, the Red Bulls have an undefeated record of 11-0-0. On the flip side, the Red Bulls are 0-6-0 when trailing at the half and 0-7-1 when trailing after the 75th minute.
In matches decided by a goal, the Red Bulls are 8-1-1. For the season they have not had a losing month. Their best month was in May where they went 4-0-1, outscoring their opposition 8-4. Goal scoring wise, their best output was in March where the team produced 10 goals while amassing a 2-2-0 record.
Against Western Conference teams, the Red Bulls are 3-2-4. For the season the club is 1-1-3 against the top five Western Conference clubs. Their sole victory was against the Los Angeles Galaxy when they won 1-0 at the Home Depot Center.
Since we're asking if the Red Bulls can win it all, it's that record against Western Conference teams that looms alongside the loss to Sporting. Though the old caveat that anything is possible come playoff time still holds, New York looks like a team that needs help. It's unlikely that they'll win the Supporters' Shield, but the Eastern Conference title is still in play.
Winning the East gives New York the best shot at advancing to MLS Cup as a circumstance they can control. What they can't control is who comes out of the West. Like it has all season, New York's chances hinge on whether they're playing home or away. After Wednesday night, even home field advantage might not be enough.
By winning the Eastern Conference, they will have the opportunity for a successful postseason run. With MLS postseason being unpredictable at times, it’s realistic to believe that there’s an outside possibility the MLS Cup will be hosted at Red Bull Arena.
Of course, the Red Bulls will have to win their final regular season matches, become Eastern Conference champions and hope San Jose or Seattle are eliminated over at the Western Conference.
Cesar Diaz is a freelance writer for several online soccer publications. If there's a soccer topic you believe needs to be written about, please feel free to contact him. Easily approachable, you may contact him atCDiazNYC@gmail.com and @CesarDiazNYC.
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