There's no way to sugar coat it: the New York Red Bulls goalkeeping situation is a mess as we reach the half-way point of the season. In Greg Sutton and Bouna Coundoul New York has two serviceable MLS backups, but neither should be a first choice starter for any club hoping to challenge for trophies. What one keeper lacks the other has. If you could somehow morph the two men into one über-goalkeeper in a specialized chamber, you'd have something. Sadly, we don't yet possess the technology.
Coundoul's game is all about reflexes, acrobatic saves and flamboyance. These qualities, and some of the astounding performances he pulled off last season - most notably at home against Kansas City - have made Bouna a bit of a fan favorite. But there's a Good Bouna Time and a Bad Bouna Time. We saw Bad Bouna Time last year in Los Angeles when he somehow threw the ball into his own goal as he scrambled to collect a rebound. The Red Bulls would go on to drop three points. Against Chicago on Sunday, when given a chance to stake his claim on the #1 spot following Sutton's abysmal display in Seattle, Coundoul went to ground too early and Marco Pappa's bouncer from outside the area found the back of the net. Ugh.
The Red Bulls goalkeeper saga began in preseason, when, instead of accompanying the squad to Mexico, Coundoul chose to suit up for the Senegal national team. Hans Backe, not pleased with Coundoul's decision, largely alternated between Sutton and third string keeper Alex Horwath in pre-season, while giving limited time to Coundoul and college draftee Jimmy Maurer, who would later be cut. Sutton started on Opening Day against Seattle and performed admirably, but was out of the lineup with an injury the following week in Columbus, while Coundoul was again on national team duty. Horwath stepped in and performed as well as could be expected in Sutton's absence, earning a clean sheet.
With Sutton sidelined, Coundoul would go on to start during the Red Bulls' most successful run of the first half of the season, including three consecutive clean sheets against San Jose, DC United and Kansas City. His string of starts would end with the disastrous 2-3 home defeat to Chivas USA. Changing tack again, Backe installed Sutton as his first choice, until the meltdown in Seattle forced his hand. The Canadian's inability to effectively organize his defense on set pieces, coupled with his glacial reflexes, has allowed Coundoul to get his foot back in the door again. Still, it remains to be seen what effect the Chicago game will have on Backe's thinking going forward. He may have finally decided that he can no longer do without a more well-rounded, vocal and reliable goalkeeper.
By punishing Coundoul for his international loyalties, Backe has made the worst of a bad situation. We have no way of knowing how Bouna feels about being benched in favor of a career journeyman after performing respectably in 2010. He's not the kind of player to complain to the media. Likewise, Sutton has taken everything in stride and has never been less than professional. But the lack of stability is causing problems on the pitch - that much is clear. Defenders get used to a certain style of goalkeeping and want to know what to expect from week to week. Backe's flip-flopping is helping no one.
Of course one might argue, with justification, that the lack of stability in central defense has had as much of a negative influence, if not more, on the Red Bulls goalkeepers. Whatever the case may be, Backe and Erik Solér need to do his utmost to shore up the club's defense and goalkeeping before the season spirals out of control. If this means saying goodbye to either Sutton or Coundoul then it's probably a price worth paying.
OK let's hand out some grades:
Bouna Coundoul - B-
We haven't yet seen the Bouna of 2010, but Coundoul did anchor the Red Bulls during their great run in April. His kicking and distribution have improved marginally over last season, but are still well below the standard of a professional goalkeeper. Why this continues to be a problem is anyone's guess. High point so far: a series of acrobatic saves against DC United.
Greg Sutton - C
The shock of having let in seven goals in Seattle and Portland is still fresh in our minds, so it's easy to overlook the fact that Sutton was instrumental in helping the Red Bulls notch a win against New England Revolution at home. His kicking and command of his penalty area are superior to Condoul, and his height gives him an advantage on high balls, but he's just too slow to get down and is prone to being beaten on low shots.
Alex Horwath: B
Horwath stepped in when he needed to and earned us a big point in Columbus. His Twitter feed is also the funniest of all Red Bull players, so he was bumped up a half grade.
Still to come: a review of the forward position, midfield and tactics.