If the old adage about the best offense being a good defense is accurate, then Red Bulls coach Hans Backe should have no trouble recognizing what to work on ahead of Saturday's match at New England.
It wasn't an entirely poor defensive effort that left New York settling for its 13th draw of the season against the Chicago Fire last weekend. Overall, the Red Bulls defense applied decent pressure, picked off quite a few balls in the Fire's attacking third, and never let the worst team by points in the Eastern Conference open the offensive floodgates at Red Bull Arena.
But that doesn't excuse the mental lapses that cost the Red Bulls their best shot at the club's first win in a month. Defenders Tim Ream and Roy Miller blew an offside trap that left Dominic Oduro wide open for the Fire's first goal, while another breakdown in coverage enabled Chicago to get behind the back line and take a clear strike past the New York's emergency starter in net, Chris Konopka.
"We just need to be better at handling the defending game," said Backe. "With normal, solid defending, you could have avoided both goals. You get a little bit frustrated when you see that kind of move."
The frustration is palpable throughout the club, especially after creating as many offensive chances as it did against the Fire. The Red Bulls simply did not make these kinds of mistakes last year, which leaves midfielder Joel Lindpere concerned that the defense may be regressing rather than improving.
“It has not been the best year for us defensively," said Lindpere. "It’s like two different sides from this year and last year. Last year, I think our team was the best in defense in the league. This year, it went the other way.”
Getting a handle on the defensive disciplinary issues may help the Red Bulls get back in a playoff picture that suddenly finds them on the outside looking in. New York hopes to organize in time to pick apart a Revolution side that claims the third-worst goal differential in the league with -13, but that won't matter if more mistakes in the back undo the progress of the potent Red Bulls attack led by Thierry Henry and his league-leading 12 goals along with Lindpere and Juan Agudelo.
In order to cut down on the mental errors and put up a solid 90 minutes of defensive effort, Red Bulls right back Chris Albright believes the back line needs to be more vocal about staying on the same page.
"We need to be better," said Albright. "Communication’s an issue, just as far as keeping our line and when we’re playing offside and when we’re staying with our runners. That came back to bite us in the last game. Overall, it’s still sort of a new unit with new personnel, so to speak. Obviously myself and Rafa (Marquez) are back after a while. We’ve got to get it together quick and get organized for the next game."
All Fours. All of the clubs running with the Red Bulls for the three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference may have games in hand, but Backe finds a scheduling sign that leaves room for optimism over his side's final nine games.
Backe was quick to point out before Monday's reserve match that four of the six Eastern Conference clubs in play for a playoff spot -- D.C. United, Sporting Kansas City, Columbus Crew, and Philadelphia Union -- have at least four games scheduled against each other or the postseason-pursuing Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo. (Both the Red Bulls and Dynamo only have two games against Eastern Conference playoff contenders.) That means those four clubs will spend a chunk of their remaining games beating each other up for points, which should make it difficult for any of them to run away with the conference.
New York hopes to exploit that battle of attrition to gain ground in the East, but that doesn't mean they can take any of their remaining games for granted.
"We’ve put ourselves in a position where points are imperative, not a luxury," said Albright. "It’s important we get three."
Road to Recovery. New York's definition of being at full strength may need an asterisk for the rest of the season. Backe hinted at a drop-dead date of September 5 for Luke Rodgers, who needs to show his ability to contribute for the club's stretch run or risk being shut down in favor of season-ending surgery to treat the English striker's plantar fasciitis. Frank Rost will join Rodgers in limbo as his status will continue to be evaluated on a week-to-week basis as the German 'keeper recovers from a right quadriceps tear.
That said, Bouna Coundoul is expected to start this Saturday in Foxborough after missing last Saturday's match due to a fever that Backe believes was caused by the Senegalese shot stopper's hectic travel schedule last week. Jan Gunnar Solli should join him if he can train with the first team before Saturday's match.
Ultimately, Backe would just prefer for the seemingly-endless roster shuffle to stop for just a little while.
"It would be nice to try to play with the same team two games in a row," said Backe. "I don’t think we’ve done it since the beginning of the season."