Ten games. That's all that remains for the New York Red Bulls to salvage an exhausting season that has gone from promising to mediocre to troubling to downright terrible. Currently in a wild card position as a result of a greater number of matches played than most MLS clubs (24), the Red Bulls are on the outside of the playoffs looking in (11th place) if you calculate using points per game.
Let's stop and think about that for a moment. The club with the highest overall payroll, in the largest market, may actually fail to make a ten-team playoff in an 18-team league. As hard as it is to believe, if the Red Bulls are unable to pick up the requisite 14-15 points over the final two-plus months of the season they will be playing golf while the likes of Sporting Kansas City, Columbus Crew and Philadelphia Union fight it out for MLS Cup.
For New York to even be in their current predicament points to a massive failure of leadership, from Erik Solér on down to the eleven men on the pitch (we won't include subs, since Hans Backe doesn't). If the Red Bulls are able to make a run over the final weeks and squeeze into a playoff position, it may make this bitter pill of a season easier to swallow for supporters, but it won't wash the taste of failure away completely. Only an MLS Cup could do that, and let's be honest - how likely does that seem?Six of New York's final ten matches are at Red Bull Arena, including "winnable" games against the likes of Chicago Fire, Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers. Mixed in, however, are road trips to Dallas and the suddenly formidable Kansas City, as well as tough home contests against Los Angeles Galaxy and Philadelphia. Making it to the postseason will require the Red Bulls to do two things they have not done in a long long time: 1) take maximum points from teams they "should beat" and 2) get a result or two against MLS' big guns.
A turnaround and magical cup run are of course still possible. Low-seeded teams, including Real Salt Lake in 2009 and the 2008 Red Bulls, have made the postseason and pulled off surprise runs to the final. But New York has shown little sign of being capable of such a turaround. Since the Dwayne De Rosario for Dax McCarty trade the offense has sputtered, while the problems at the back that the deal was meant to address have gotten even worse. Tim Ream's form has dipped precipitously since the Gold Cup, while his defensive partner Rafael Márquez has seemed lazy and disinterested. In the center of the park, the combination of the timid Mehdi Ballouchy and new boy McCarty has proven disastrous. Up front, Juan Agudelo has failed to develop any kind of understanding with Thierry Henry. That's a lot of issues to work out in a very short time - and we haven't even touched on goalkeeping.
When asked this week about his club's fading playoff prospects, Solér declared himself "worried, not terrified." It's part of the general manager's job to project an aura of calm and confidence, no matter how turbulent things may be behind the scenes. Still, for Solér to even admit that he's "worried" says a lot about where the Red Bulls are right now. Another two months of underachievement and we could see yet another rebuilding process start in Harrison, with the Scandinavian management team the first casualty when Austria decides to swing the ax.