Plenty of Red Bulls fans are headed into Saturday's game against the Columbus Crew fearful that this week's game could be the "trap game" where a team's confidence allows it to overlook its opponent.
Truth be told, neither side is right, and neither side is completely wrong, either.
It's no secret the Red Bulls aren't the most consistent team in MLS. The first two games of the season, against two of the league's better sides, the Bulls looked determined to make 2012 an extended 2011. But the last two games the Bulls looked like they had turned a new leaf. Yes, there were mistakes, but they recovered from those mistakes - thanks, mostly, to Thierry Henry. More importantly, though, was that the team did what they were supposed to do.
Not a revelation, and certainly doing your job is no reason fawn over the squad, but the last two games have eased the fear that 2012 would be a protracted 2011.
Last season a match-up with a Rapids team without its two best players would have ended in a less-than-convincing win or more likely, a draw. Against the Impact, the team would have turtled in the second half, content with a point. Instead there was a killer instinct nowhere to be found in 2011.
Even more important, the players on the field are playing the way they should. Henry is pissed, seemingly creating scoring chances at will. Wilman Conde, who was an early candidate for the Brian Nielsen role in 2012, has proven that if he's healthy he's an extremely effective player, being named to MLSsoccer.com's Week 4 Best XI. Dax McCarty is looking like the player Erik Soler expected when he brought him over last season. Rafael Marquez played a good game against Colorado minus coughing up the ball in the midfield, leading to a Rapids goal. He didn't play as well against Montreal, but we don't know if he was hiding an injury. And last year's "super sub" Mehdi Ballouchy is looking like a super sub, sans scare quotes.
Granted, there are still kinks to be worked out. Hans Backe rightfully wants more production on the wings, with Joel Lindpere not quite back to his 2011 form. The two goals against Montreal fall squarely on Ryan Meara's shoulders. Markus Holgersson isn't looking like the player Soler and Backe expected him to be, though Conde has a calming effect on the Swede.
A win or some kind of draw against Columbus this weekend could go a long way to proving this Red Bulls squad is more like the surprising 2010 team and less like the 2011 team that drove most of the fan base to insanity. Or at least proving the 2012 iteration is ready to play the kind of soccer the roster says it can.