The talk out of New York Red Bulls camp before Saturday evening's match against Toronto FC was all about taking a cup final mindset into the game, maintaining playoff intensity throughout 90+ minutes and putting in maximum effort. But in a first half dominated by misplaced passes and lazy runs there was precious little sign that New York's players had wrapped their minds around the importance of the game and their precarious position on the very edge of MLS' 10 team postseason.
Thierry Henry was hardly involved, players who have been reliable worker bees all season - such as Joel Lindpere - found their touch wanting - and Rafael Marquez, back in the lineup and in sore need of redemption, looked like he'd rather be anywhere else, hardly breaking a sweat and spending most of the first 45 minutes at walking pace, when he wasn't playing 5 yard passes sideways or giving the ball away cheaply. Hans Backe's decision to start the Mexican superstar following recent controversy was looking very questionable indeed.
For its part, Toronto was defending stoutly, with Torsten Frings lying deep to sweep up any trouble in front of the Reds' notoriously leaky back line. Milos Kocic, started in place of Stefan Frei, was only forced into a single difficult save in the first half, in the 38th minute, when a Luke Rodgers header from a Roy Miller cross looked destined for the bottom right corner of the TFC goal. Kocic got down well and parried the effort wide.
Predictably, Backe made no substitutions at half time, despite Marquez's total lack of commitment. Henry, on the other hand, awoke from his first half slumber to trouble Toronto again and again. First a left footed shot from the Frenchman was beaten wide by Kocic, then Henry put Rodgers clear on goal with on a delicious through ball. Rodgers, however, took one touch too many and ended up scuffing his shot over the goal.
The Reds would make New York pay just moments later. Marquez, pushing forward in the final third, played a loose short pass that was intercepted easily by Ryan Johnson. Johnson broke quickly in attack, as Marquez sauntered behind him at a snail's pace. Johnson timed his pass to Danny Koevermans to perfection, the Dutchman sprinted beyond the Red Bulls' weak offside trap and put his shot past a helpless Frank Rost. The goal encapsulated all of the things that New York fans have found lacking in Marquez this season - presence of mind, tenacity and a willingness to bust his hump to help the team succeed. Ream can certainly be faulted for allowing Koevermans to get past him so easily, but Marquez's laziness is simply unforgivable.
Many managers would have subbed Marquez off immediately. Backe, however, as we have seen time and time again this season, is not one for substitutions before the hour mark, regardless of the circumstances. Marquez would remain on the pitch for another 29 minutes (!), committing silly fouls, misplacing passes and rarely raising his heart rate, before he was subbed off without so much as a handshake from the Swede. Once Dax McCarty entered the game in Marquez's place the Red Bulls immediately looked more dangerous, with Henry playing probing passes and getting more involved in the match. Questions might be asked about why Backe took so long to bring Juan Agudelo into a game that was so clearly crying out for an attacking spark. The youngster would not appear until the 81st minute, in place of Stephen Keel.
Toronto FC has made a habit of surrendering late goals in the 2011 campaign, and as the Red Bulls continued to push for an equalizer, you sensed that the Canadians couldn't hold on indefinitely. Finally, an 88th minute corner kick found its way through a tangle of bodies and fell to Henry. The Frenchman turned cleverly and finished magnificently past Kocic - a lovely bit of skill in an otherwise ugly and brutal match.
New York would continue to push for a winner, but to no avail. They had spent the first half asleep, and had only truly awoken after going behind by a goal. The draw - New York's 16th of the year, equaling Chicago Fire, who also drew today against Houston Dynamo - does the Red Bulls no favors. With three difficult games remaining, they will need to find a way to get maximum points from one or more of them to have any hope of making the playoffs.
The 1-1 draw sets off the Red Bulls' failings in stark relief: a lack of energy and drive from the opening kickoff, superstar players who perform inconsistently if at all, and a manager who refuses to make the timely tactical adjustments necessary to effectively impact matches.
The match against Supporters' Shield favorites Los Angeles Galaxy looms on the horizon. New York will need to improve in nearly every facet of the game if they want to have any hope of not being blown off the Red Bull Arena pitch on Tuesday. As for Marquez's shot at redemption, that ship has sailed - and sunk. Erik Soler should be burning up the phones, looking for anyone who will take this multi-million dollar albatross from around his neck.