The New York Red Bulls, a squad that was hailed by some (well, me) as the best starting XI in the history of MLS earlier this year, face a task that would have been unthinkable at the end of April: they have eight games left to save their season.
A team that smashed DC United in the swamp, battled to very creditable draws away to the Los Angeles Galaxy and Arsenal, and has scored the second-most goals in MLS is on the brink of not making the playoffs. Worse than that, there seems to be no cohesion in the team, few players with commitment or confidence, and no competition for places (particularly concerning in light of recent results) as a direct result of the manager's decisions.
Barring a turnaround that would be as shocking now as the descent from the halcyon days of spring to week upon week of disappointment in July and August would have been after the win over DC, New York will not make the playoffs. The New York Red Bulls of Thierry Henry, Rafael Márquez, Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream, and Joel Lindpere will not make the playoffs. The New York Red Bulls of three Designated Players and one of the highest payrolls in the league will not make the playoffs. The New York Red Bulls that had been a solid, defensively resilient, occasionally spectacular, difficult-to-beat side in 2010 have become the laughingstock of the league in 2011.
All of this raises the question.....why? Not just "Why did this happen?" but "Why do we keep supporting this team?" I must be insane to keep turning up or flipping on the TV week after week, thinking that the Red Bulls might actually win a football match. For some bizarre reason, I keep believing that we can score more goals than the opposition. Being a fan of this team is some kind of strange affliction.
Some of this insanity fades over time -- I remember watching the Red Bulls on the wrong end of a 4-0 pummeling at the hands of Colorado in 2008 and working out how we'd be able to pull out a draw if we could just score one, then another, and the next two would just come naturally. This year, when Colorado went 3-0 up against us, I knew the game was up.
Even though I'll head out to Red Bull Arena on Saturday believing that we can dismantle Vancouver, I have no similar faith when it comes to our playoff hopes. While we still have a shot at making the playoffs, this team is not championship-caliber. There are some very good pieces, but as a unit the Red Bulls concede far too many goals and lack the killer instinct needed to win matches.
There will be plenty of time during the off-season to mull over the mistakes and misfortune that doomed New York this year, but I feel as if the season has already finished. The rest of our games look more like post-season friendlies than vital games for a team scraping to get into the playoffs. I'm sure my hope and excitement will be back by next March, but for now, all I can see is a long off-season watching European games on TV.