The New York Red Bulls began their 2012 MLS campaign with a disappointing 2-1 loss away to FC Dallas this afternoon. The Red Bulls looked off the pace early on, conceded twice from defensive errors and could have been further behind before getting to grips with the match in the final half-hour. Kenny Cooper scored his first goal for the club on debut, but New York was unable to complete the comeback and lost its season opener for the first time in three years.
Since you can read blow-by-blow match reports anywhere, I'm going to take things in a different direction this season for some games (losses, when I don't want to write all about the individual mistakes that cost us) and take a look at some of the systemic problems the team had. I'll also discuss some of the bright spots -- there were a few, despite the loss.
The most obvious problem for the Red Bulls was their slow start: aside from a brief flurry of chances just before halftime, the Red Bulls failed to threaten Kevin Hartman's goal consistently until the latter part of the second half. While this may have been early season rust, Hans Backe must ensure that his players show up for the first sixty minutes. If not, against better, more clinical teams, the Red Bulls will be dead and buried by halftime.
Related to this, New York played much of the match at a tempo far slower than that of Dallas. While the hosts were tearing into the Red Bulls with pace, the Red Bulls struggled to get moves going and rarely took advantage of the team's two pacey options, Dane Richards and Juan Agudelo. Joel Lindpere saw little of the ball as well, and his driving runs from midfield were certainly missed.
While I had expected (in the match preview) that the Red Bulls would try to hit Callas on the counterattack while allowing the home side more of the ball, the opposite seemed to be the case. Dallas would charge forward in a quick attack, then the Red Bulls would try to build from the back, give up the ball, and then allow another Dallas surge. Considering the general lack of pace, particularly in wide areas (Dane is fast, and Solli has a bit of speed, but neither Lindpere nor Miller are particularly quick), this actually isn't all that surprising.
Unfortunately, while the Red Bulls had the better of the possession, and far more of the ball in the middle of the park, the two holding midfielders (McCarty and Tainio) did not work enough to protect the back four. The Red Bulls' defense looked poor, but this was mostly due to the fact that they were forced to play on the back foot, or running backwards, for much of the game. The introduction of Victor Pálsson seemed to stem the flow of Dallas attacks, so we may see him getting more playing time, probably in place of the very disappointing McCarty, in the coming weeks. I'm giving the defense a pass for this week because they were hung out to dry by the rest of the team far too often, but Holgersson, Keel, and Solli have to play better as well. Roy Miller is a lost cause.
Enough doom and gloom -- time for some bright spots. The brightest of them has to be the performance of rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara, who, despite conceding two goals on his professional debut, looked assured, in command of his area, and capable of becoming a solid MLS starter. Neither of the goals were his fault, and he made several key saves to keep Dallas from putting the game away.
Another Red Bulls' debutant, Kenny Cooper, was the best of the outfield players, despite the brevity of his appearance. In just twenty-seven minutes he showed the finishing class, creativity, and good runs and footwork that the New York attack needed throughout. He must start in place of the woeful Agudelo until the Great Hope of American Soccer actually starts to live up to his potential.
In spite of these positives, the key performance was the play from New York's captain, Thierry Henry. Frustrated throughout and forced to drop back to the halfway line to pick up the ball, it's difficult to see how Backe will be able to keep his best player anywhere near satisfied without more quality distribution from midfield. However, Backe has almost never departed from a 4-4-2, and with Tainio and McCarty or Pálsson the likely starters in the middle, improved service will have to come from the wide areas, from Lindpere and Richards. The central midfielders will have to find ways of getting those two the ball more as well.
Altogether it was a discouraging start to the season. Dallas is good, but the Red Bulls came out flat and showed far too many -- and too many of the same -- weaknesses as last year. Next up is a trip to Rio Tinto to face Real Salt Lake, where a point would feel like winning MLS Cup (nearly).
Selected Stats (NY-FCD)
Possession: 63% - 37%
Passing Accuracy: 83% - 73%
Total Passes: 536 - 314
Corners: 9 - 2
Open Play Crosses: 19 - 10
Fouls: 11 - 13
Shots (On Goal): 13(2) - 11(6)