DJ Solli shutting down "Party Boy" Chris Pontius (Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)
A Nordic Invasion – the only designation to cover all of the New York Red Bulls' Northern European imports – has become the focal point of much jest surrounding the Red Bulls. If you’ve been to Red Bull Arena, you’ve surely seen the horned helmets and the banners for the Viking Army supporters' group. Anything involving Brian Nielsen is funny. There's also been a long and awkward attempt to invent a nickname for Joel Lindpere. The performances of Teemu Tainio, a Finn, and Jan Gunnar Solli, a Norwegian, last Thursday further showed that the effects of this group of players in New York go far beyond humor.
By the end of 2010 Hans Backe and Erik Soler found themselves on a pedestal: Red Bulls fans were generally delighted by the rapid turnaround their club had experienced. The duo engineered a roster and attitude transformation, while the same turnaround occurred on the pitch as well through the tireless work of Lindpere, the dynamic Estonian midfielder. Despite the Red Bulls' significant improvements, the 2010 season ended in the heartbreak of a dramatic early playoff exit. After the largely disappointing first four matches this season, in which Thierry Henry failed to integrate into RBNY’s restructured attack, some fans began to doubt the quality of a side expected to compete for MLS’s Supporters’ Shield.
During the Red Bulls' very early season travails, Tainio and Solli quietly revealed themselves to be among the best in MLS at their respective positions. The former has lived up to his pedigree as a former Auxerre, Tottenham, and Sunderland midfielder, while the latter's almost nonexistent reputation before arriving in New York was reminiscent of Lindpere's before the 2010 campaign. During the Red Bulls’ destruction of D.C. United, a result that relieved any pressure that may have affected the ever-cool Backe, Tainio and Solli further proved their worth to a surging Red Bulls team.
Tainio is the conduit through which Backe’s switch to a possession-oriented style has flourished. The stocky central midfielder brings tremendous grit to Backe’s diamond 4-4-2, stopping opposing attacks and taking on the responsbility for setting the Red Bulls forward from his position just ahead of the centerbacks. Last season, Backe had a few options at the base of New York's midfield, with Tony Tchani, Carl Robinson, and Rafael Marquez the three players who saw the most game time in that position. Tchani had the athleticism to assert himself and sometimes dominated the center of the park, but also possessed the questionable decision-making of an obvious rookie. Robinson, perpetually dwelling in the center circle, was -- and still is -- able to win retain the ball, but his age and mobility limit his impact. Márquez appears more comfortable at centerback, where he is afforded greater time to pick his passes.
There were a pair of moments in the Red Bulls' clash with DC United that illustrated Tainio’s importance and showed how he is different from the players with whom he had been competing for the starting defensive midfield spot. The first came early in the match when Charlie Davies was hurtling forward after collecting possession in his own half. With a tackle that appeared laughably easy, Tainio dispossessed the American striker, then instantly chipped a ball at the D.C. penalty area that was slightly under hit. The pass may have been deemed a turnover, but it showed the Finn’s speed of thought and willingness to take the initiative in beginning attacks.
The second event resulted in nothing tangible and was probably forgotten five minutes later. Some time after the break, Tainio received a pass and, rather than trapping the ball, blindly swung a perfectly placed crossfield pass to Roy Miller, changing the point of the attack in seconds. Both of these moments will have probably already disappeared from memories of the New York faithful, but they demonstrate that the cliché that the best midfielders "do the little things" is true in Tainio’s case.
As for his Norwegian teammate: quite simply, Solli was fantastic against D.C. United. The personable Norwegian and burgeoning DJ neutralized any opponents attacking on the United left and frequently charged up his flank, laying on the first two goals, for Henry, and New York's fourth from Juan Agudelo. Few fullbacks in MLS so seamlessly combine the necessary technical ability, willingness to attack, and defensive nous required for excellence in the position. Solli, according to Peter Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, finished the night as the second defender in MLS history to record 3 assists in one match -- until his helper on Henry’s second goal was removed because it deflected to the Frenchman’s feet.
The newest Baltic transplants in Harrison showed early on that they possess the strength and speed needed to assimilate into MLS. But it is their technique and tactical knowledge that has allowed Tainio and Solli to become early favorites for the league’s Newcomer of the Year Award and the base of team able to compete for its first MLS Cup.