Coming into the 2011 season, New York Red Bulls manager Hans Backe's stated preference was to play a four man diamond midfield. Deprived a true dynamic attacking presence at the top of the diamond when the Red Bulls kicked off the campaign, he was forced to start the season in a flat 4-4-2, with Mehdi Ballouchy alongside Teemu Tainio in the middle, and Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards on the wings. This changed when Dwayne De Rosario arrived from Toronto FC in April. The addition of De Rosario completed Backe's coveted diamond and helped revive the Red Bulls' moribund attack. Within a few weeks of his arrival, the goals started to pour in and the Red Bulls enjoyed a good run, with De Rosario's vision and presence in the middle helping create space for Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers.
So, if things were ticking along nicely at one time, why did the Red Bulls feel the time was right to ship De Rosario off to DC United this week in exchange for Dax McCarty? Financial considerations certainly factored into it - McCarty is younger and cheaper, and the club needs cap space - but it also seems that Backe came to the conclusion that the attacking advantages that DeRo brought to the table were not enough to compensate for his defensive deficiencies. On the other hand it could be argued - with no small justification - that it has been goals from set pieces killing New York lately moreso than problems from open play.
This is not to overlook the fact that the Red Bulls had begun to leak goals even before their Gold Cup players had departed. By adding McCarty, it would appear that Backe has admitted defeat in implementing the diamond and prefers to have a hard working box-to-box presence alongside Teemu Tainio, with Henry playing in the hole, slightly behind Luke Rodgers or Juan Agudelo. With two bulldog ball winner types in the middle, cleaning up in front of the back four, the Red Bulls should be tighter defensively than they were in the first half of the season. How this affects the attack will be interesting to see. Will the offense stagnate again now that DeRo is gone, or will this new formation strike the right balance? My colleague Ben Schneider will be looking at this midfield evolution in more depth in his upcoming tactical review.
The Lindpere/Tainio/McCarty/Richards quartet should be the first choice midfield selection going forward, with Mehdi Ballouchy and Austin Da Luz as primary options off the bench. There's also a chance that right back Chris Albright's return from a long-term injury will allow Backe to use Jan Gunnar Solli in his more familiar midfield role, as needed. After that, options are few, with retirement potentially looming for Carl Robinson and a host of young, inexperienced players rounding out the bench. Limiting absences and keeping that first choice midfield healthy will be essential.
My mid-term grades for the Red Bulls midfield:
Mehdi Ballouchy - C
The high point of Ballouchy's first half of the season was his thumping header in stoppage time that salvaged a draw in Houston. Unfortunately, his undeniable low - the horrendous giveaway in stoppage time against Columbus Crew - will live long in the memory as well. Serviceable as an option off the bench, Ballouchy lacks the movement, soccer IQ and confidence to merit being in the starting XI.
Austin Da Luz - B+
Given the chance to start during the Gold Cup, Da Luz has impressed. He notched his first career goal in Portland and has looked bright on the left side, providing some much needed pace and making quick, smart decisions. Arguably the Red Bulls' best US Open Cup performer on Tuesday.
Dwayne De Rosario - B-
De Rosario was never really at his best for the Red Bulls. After a scintillating debut in the second half of the Houston home game, DeRo never quite got into gear. However, his presence did create opportunities for others, and he was the only Red Bull capable of hitting a penalty with any confidence, an underrated skill that could be missed.
Matt Kassel - INC
Backe has been using Kassel as a right back, so I won't even attempt to give him a grade here. That could change if Chris Albright makes a successful return from surgery.
Joel Lindpere - B
Lindpere has not been quite the player he was last season, but he is clearly playing through pain. Never gives less than 100% and is a model professional. Scored a lovely individual goal against DC United. Despite a quieter start in 2011, he has nearly equaled his 2010 goal production and is on course to match his assist total of last year. Solid.
Brian Nielsen - INC
The closest thing MLS has to a unicorn.
Marcos Paullo - INC
Seemed eager - maybe too eager - to impress in his only appearance against FC New York, taking pot shots from anywhere and everywhere. Willing and able to run at defenders and create opportunities, but he needs to work on his movement. We need to see more.
Dane Richards - B+
Three goals and three assists in eleven games is pretty impressive for a player who has been missing on a number of occasions due to international commitments. The Red Bulls are a much more dangerous team with the threat of Richards' speed on the wing.
Carl Robinson - INC
Robinson has logged just 54 minutes in two appearances, so we'll resist giving him any kind of grade. There's a decent chance that Robbo will hang up his boots this summer and assume a coaching role with the Red Bulls. If so, he'd be a great addition to the staff.
John Rooney - B-
Scored the winning goal against to spare Red Bulls fans the embarrassment of going out early in US Open Cup play and losing the first ever game against FC New York. Needs to be more decisive and work on his passing.
Jan Gunnar Solli - INC
Nominally a midfielder, but played as a right back. See our Mid-season Report Card: Defense for more on Solli and Kassel.
Teemu Tainio - A-
Not quite as influential in recent games as he was earlier in the season, but he has been asked to carry a lot of the defensive burden in the absence of others. Fantastic passer, tireless ball winner. You really could not ask much more from Tainio. A great signing for the Red Bulls. Here's hoping he can stay healthy.