Another "must win" game for the New York Red Bulls, another unsatisfying draw. Facing the league's bottom club, Vancouver Whitecaps, with the benefit of three weeks rest, there were really no excuses for Hans Backe and company this time around. Vancouver had yet to win on the road this season (0-10-4 coming into Saturday's fixture). Apart from a Teemu Tainio suspension and Frank Rost's continued rehabilitation, New York had few missing players to fret about. Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream had played sparingly if at all on US National Team duty. Thierry Henry was fresh as a daisy. Even Luke Rodgers was fit enough to make the bench.
So how did the Red Bulls conspire to (yet again) throw away two points? Call it a lack of urgency, call it a lack of concentration, call it a puzzling lack of motivation. Throw in some terrible refereeing if you like. However you want to characterize it, New York played an exceptionally emotionless first half. The feelings regarding the 10th anniversary commemoration of the 9/11 tragedy may have been running high, but the Red Bulls' pulse was near flatlining.
Rafa Márquez, who was pushed into the defensive midfield role he assumed most of last season, was more interested in arguing calls with referee Terry Vaughn (more on him later) than carrying out his duties. In the 22nd minute Davide Chiumiento found himself alone in the Red Bulls 18-yard box after a smart cutback, with Márquez nowhere nearby. A quick turn and shot into the roof of the net past Bouna Coundoul suddenly had the Red Bulls down a goal and the Whitecaps wondering if this might be the night that they registered their first away win in MLS. It was nothing less than Vancouver deserved. The Whitecaps carved out the better chances through the first half hour , while their passing and movement had a crispness and purpose that the Red Bulls' lacked. For New York fans it was all too familiar - their team had once again dug itself a hole against a "lesser" opponent. The hole would get deeper.This takes us back to Mr. Vaughn. Unloading with both barrels on MLS referees has become a popular pastime, but among the league's putrid crop of officials there is perhaps none who is worse at his job than Terry Vaughn. Having issued a yellow card to Márquez for an early foul, Vaughn should have sent the Mexican off for a second clumsy challenge when he came in from behind on Eric Hassli and got almost none of the ball. Instead, he kept his card in his pocket and then sent Jan Gunnar Solli off a few moments later for allegedly denying Hassli a goalscoring opportunity. Replays showed that Solli was not the last defender and the goalscoring opportunity was by no means clear cut. But never mind. In the grand scheme of things (in Mr. Vaughn's mind at least) justice was served. The Red Bulls were now down a goal and down a man - never mind that it wasn't the right man. Thus ended the first half.
Mike Petke, interviewed on MSG at halftime, pulled no punches, admitting that the Red Bulls were second best and lacked fire. It was curious, then, to see Hans Backe make no significant changes at the break in a game they desperately needed to win. Only at the hour mark, when Juan Agudelo was subbed in for Stephane Auvray did New York begin to show some life. Eight minutes after entering the game, a long free kick by Márquez (you know - the guy who should have been hitting the showers) found its way to Agudelo, who had managed to squirm free of John Thorrington and get goal side in the 18-yard box. Agudelo banged it into the corner and suddenly New York was in the ascendency, despite being a man down.
But that was about as close as the Red Bulls would get to claiming three points. A pair of Thierry Henry headers would trouble Joe Cannon, while Luke Rodgers' late introduction added some spice to the proceedings, but Vancouver had good chances of their own - most notably Camilo's late curling shot that just bent beyond Coundoul's far post. So, a 1-1 final. It's a result that's satisfying for neither party, but especially hard to swallow for the Red Bulls, given the quality of their upcoming opponents.
Going forward, equally difficult for Hans Backe will be compensating for the absences of Márquez, who will miss the FC Dallas match through yellow card accumulation, and Solli, whose red card will mean that the left back position will be even more of a problem area.
As the draws pile up (the total now stands at a mind-boggling 15 for New York), the Red Bulls continue to slide out of the MLS playoff picture. It will take a Herculean effort for Backe's men to even make the postseason at this point. Anyone placing a bet on them getting there should be admitted immediately for psychiatric consultation. Mr. Backe, meanwhile, may want to start looking at retirement properties in Sweden.