Although the New York Red Bulls managed a hard-fought and somewhat fortuitous win last Friday over the New England Revolution, the Red Bulls' return of eight points from the last twenty-one on offer is still well below what any fan or journalist would have predicted. Unfortunately for New York, their next four league games are long away trips to the Midwest and West Coast. First they are away to Portland this evening, followed by a Thursday game in Seattle and a Sunday night trip to Chicago before a US Open Cup match at Red Bull Arena against an opponent to be determined, and then finally a trip out to San Jose for the first weekend in July.
To compound this difficult pairing of fixture congestion and plenty of travel, the Red Bulls are also dangerously short in several areas of the team due to injuries and the Gold Cup. As unfortunate as it may have been for him, Dwayne De Rosario's return could be a huge help for New York, at least for the next two games. New York looks quite shaky at right back and defensive midfield in the absence of Chris Albright and Carl Robinson, and the age of the squad means that injuries and long-haul flights could further hurt the Red Bulls.
That said, they still look like one of the best teams in the league on paper. With De Rosario back, Hans Backe should be able to field a starting XI (assuming the players listed as "Questionable" return against Portland) that looks a bit like this:
Greg Sutton--Roy Miller, Stephen Keel, Carlos Mendes, Jan Gunnar Solli--Joel Lindpere, Teemu Tainio, Dwayne De Rosario, Mehdi Ballouchy--Thierry Henry, Luke Rodgers
A bit weak at the back and on the wings, but still a pretty good team by MLS standards. The strike partnership is probably the best in the league, Sutton's a solid goalkeeper, and the central midfield is also quite good.
Where does that leave us fans in terms of expectations? I generally expect the Red Bulls to win their home games and take three points away against mediocre or poor opposition. Portland have an excellent home record (albeit with a small sample size to examine), while despite their great atmosphere, Seattle haven't been particularly good on their ground. Chicago tends to pose problems for the Red Bulls, but they're simply not that good this year; after a very poor start to the season, San Jose have improved lately (although their form could well change before they take on the Red Bulls in two weeks' time).
The Portland game will probably be a tough one, so a draw would probably be a good result out there. Because the USA faces Jamaica on Sunday, the Red Bulls will get either Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo or Dane Richards back before heading out to Seattle. The game against the Sounders will probably be another fairly difficult test, and a draw there will likely be a decent result.
Chicago must be three points -- they're just not very good, no matter how fatigued the Red Bulls players may be after three games in nine days. San Jose is difficult to pick, but given how comprehensively New York thrashed them at Red Bull Arena, and that everyone will be back from international duty by that point, the Red Bulls should be able to win that game.
That would be eight points from a possible twelve. A quick disclaimer: I'm terrible with predictions (although I got the Champions League Final and NBA Finals exactly right), so this could all get blown up by a couple of bad defensive errors. At the same time, Erik Soler and Hans Backe have assembled a team that, while aging, has enough quality to compete even without some key pieces. Hopefully they will prove me right over the next three weeks.