November 3, 2012
Can the Red Bulls overcome a shaky defense and lack of team speed against United?
By Michael Lewis
The general challenge of teams is to maximize your strengths to minimize your weaknesses.
Entering Saturday's MLS playoff game at D.C. United, this much is known about the Red Bulls:
* Their strengths include a dangerous attack force without a dominant offensive midfielder and a highly technical team.
* Their weaknesses include a shaky defense -- team and backline -- that has improved in recent weeks and a lack of team speed.
And as the old sports adage goes, defense wins championships.
There is very little room for error in the playoffs. Make one mistake, be out of position by a yard or two and the opposition can punish you to the point that you become spectators quite quickly.
Let's not forget there are no easy or struggling teams this time around. The four Eastern Conference finalists have won more games than they have lost.
And, you can't hope for a team to lose a game in another series. You have to do the hard work yourself.
Many fans, media and soccer observers have bemoaned the fact the Red Bulls have no team speed on the attack with right midfielder Lloyd Sam, the only player with real pace, out for the season. You cannot deny that, but you can overcome that by utilizing the skills -- technical and physical -- of Thierry Henry, Kenny Cooper and company.
What concerns yours truly is there is no great speed in the midfield and backline. While center back Markus Holgersson has improved considerably over the final half of the season, his lack of speed is a liability. Against Chris Pontius and company, that could be devastating.
Even without the ever-dangerous Dwayne De Rosario, United will be difficult to stop with the likes of Pontius, who has owned the Red Bulls this season, Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi and rookie Nick de Leon.
"One of these guys can make a difference and win the game for the team," Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said during a media conference on Friday. "They are defending very, very well. They are very hard to break down. They are a very solid team at the moment."
It will be up to Backe to devise a strategy to take advantage of those said strengths and negate those weaknesses.
He has done it before.
Backe made a key tactical adjustment for the 3-1 home win over the Columbus Crew on Sept. 15. He decided to have his midfielders and defenders pass over the defense, playing long ball, counter to the team's effective ground game. It exposed the Columbus backline and worked almost to perfection.
Backe must use his tactical wits to stop a team that has scored eight goals against the Red Bulls in three matches, including four in a 4-1 rout of New York at RFK Stadium on April 22.
Backe obviously did not reveal his plans.
"We think we have a game plan for it," he said. "Just hope that works."
If Backe can concoct a plan to limit D.C.'s most dangerous players and have the Red Bulls leave RFK with a tie or even a rare win down there, the Red Bulls will be in great shape entering the second leg.
If not, it could be another short playoff run for New York.