DJ Solli makes the grade.
After a strong defensive start that saw them concede just four goals in their first seven league encounters, the New York Red Bulls have now gone ten games without keeping a clean sheet. As a result, despite leading MLS in goals scored (27), the Red Bulls only enjoy a +6 differential, just a single goal better than the Philadelphia Union, whose attack was so anemic to start the season. A Red Bulls defensive core that looked formidable on paper has become the club's Achilles heel. Where did things go wrong?
The Chivas USA game at Red Bull Arena is a good place to start. Having returned home following a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Los Angeles Galaxy, New York was on its heels early thanks a Justin Braun goal, the first of three for him on the night. The Red Bulls never really recovered and suffered what remains their only home loss of the season. If previous games had featured mental lapses, here we saw the first major cracks appear. The Red Bulls were badly victimized on two set pieces - something that would become a running theme for the long barren spell that continued through Sunday's 1-1 draw in Chicago.In assessing the Red Bulls' defense in the first half of the season it is, of course, important to keep in mind that this was an area that was especially hard hit by Gold Cup call-ups, with the central defensive partnership of Tim Ream and Rafael Márquez missing for an entire month. There's also the long-term absence of Chris Albright to consider. Pressed into service as a right back, rather than is his more familiar midfield position, Jan Gunnar Solli has done an admirable job, but depth at both fullback positions has most definitely been lacking. Finally, there's the issue of communication between the defense and goalkeepers, something we will address in greater depth our goalkeeping mid-season report.
Happily, the Dax McCarty deal has given Erik Solér and Hans Backe some mad money. Let's hope they use it to shore up the back line.
With all that in mind, it's time to hand out some mid-term grades:
Chris Albright - INC
Backe has indicated that Albright will soon be ready to resume full training. This will give the Red Bulls more options on the right side and provide Jan Gunnar Solli with some much needed rest.
Sacir Hot - INC
Like several others, made his first appearance on Tuesday in US Open Cup action. We'll need to see more before we can give him a grade.
Mike Jones - INC
Looked steady enough in the first half of Tuesday's US Open Cup game, but tired as the match wore on and was dead on his feet by the 70th minute. We can only judge him when/if he gets to full fitness and is given a run out in subsequent rounds.
Matt Kassel - C+
Not ideally suited as a defender, he has nonetheless been pressed into service there on a few occasions. Tentative on the ball, but his long-distance crack from distance against Vancouver could have won the Red Bulls maximum points.
Stephen Keel - C-
Filled in admirably in the Red Bulls' first away game of the season, in Columbus, but badly exposed in subsequent appearances. Doesn't have great awareness and despite his size isn't great in the air either. Put on particularly horrendous displays in Portland and Seattle while standing in for the Gold Cup absentees.
Tyler Lassiter - INC
Touted by Hans Backe as the next Tim Ream, he has yet to appear in a league match. Did feature briefly in the US Open Cup victory over FC New York, but it's safe to assume that he won't be getting near the first team any time soon.
Rafael Márquez - B-
The passing and vision are there, but Marquez has yet to score a goal and his distribution from set pieces has been sub-par, at best. Also has a tendency to make late, lazy tackles in and around the 18-yard box. The Red Bulls will need to see better out of Marquez in the second half of the season if they want to have any chance to compete for trophies.
Carlos Mendes - C
At the heart of a Red Bulls defense that let it seven goals over two games in the Pacific Northwest. Hasn't looked nearly as assured as he did in 2010, but then again playing alongside the shaky Stephen Keel hasn't helped.
Roy Miller - C-
At arguably the Red Bulls weakest position on the pitch (goalkeeper would be in the conversation as well), Miller has at least given the team a steady option at right back and has some pace to get forward and join in attacks. Regrettably, his positioning remains suspect and there's a good reason why the Red Bulls have been exposed so many times down his flank. If Backe and Soler are going shopping for two players, the first should be a goalkeeper and the second a left back to replace (or at least) push Miller.
Teddy Schneider - INC
Has yet to make a league appearance. Steady enough against FC New York, though he was played in a left-sided midfield role.
Jan Gunnar Solli - A-
For a player forced to fill in at an unfamiliar position in a new league, it's hard to see how fans could expect more from Solli. Has had several excellent games, none better than the resounding victory against DC United. In recent weeks he has been a little less consistent, but that may be a simple matter of fatigue. Partially at fault for Chicago's equalizer, when he played an ill-advised pass across his own 18-yard box.
Tim Ream - B
With the exception of a major mental gaffe in Chester that handed Philadelphia Union three points, Ream has had another steady season at the back and his ability to distribute from deep positions is a huge advantage. There's already talk about interest from European teams, including PSV Eindhoven, but the Red Bulls simply cannot afford to let Ream go until winter at the earliest. Having him back from Gold Cup duty should be a major boon.
We will continue this series in coming days, with a look at goalkeeping, midfield and the attack, as well as an in-depth tactical breakdown.