It was over before New York ever got started.
Defensive miscues put the Red Bulls in a three-goal hole by the 21st minute to a rolling Real Salt Lake side that went on to collect a 3-1 win at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday evening. Though Alvaro Saborio opened the scoring for RSL in the 7th minute by heading home an Andy Williams corner kick, it was a Fabian Espindola brace built on bad coverage by the Red Bulls back line that left the home side far behind the second-best club by points in MLS.
A Joel Lindpere bicycle kick of a Rafael Marquez corner in the 69th minute spoiled the clean sheet for RSL 'keeper Nick Rimando on what was the Red Bulls' second of four shots on target during the match, but New York couldn't follow it up to prevent the Claret-and-Cobalt's fifth consecutive win in regular season play.
According to the MLS Playoff Standings, the Red Bulls (7-7-15, 36 pts) now sit one point behind the Portland Timbers (10-12-7, 37 pts) for the final postseason wild card berth following Portland's 1-1 draw against the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday. Despite the loss to RSL, New York's playoff hopes received some help from an old friend as a second-half brace by Chivas USA striker and former Red Bulls forward Juan Pablo Angel forced D.C. United (8-8-11, 35 pts) to settle for a 2-2 draw and a one-point gap for the final playoff spot.
The Boo Bird Migration. No Red Bulls defender is above scrutiny after Wednesday's sorry display. Even Chris Albright found himself on the pitch for two of three RSL strikes before leaving the match in the 15th minute due to a calf injury.
But the Red Bulls supporters focused their disdain on Marquez, who heard a chorus of boos with his every touch on the ball. Though Marquez picked up his play following Espindola's second goal, nothing -- not even his assist on Lindpere's goal -- had any effect on the fans' appraisals of him.
According to the MLS Players Union, Marquez is due to receive $4.6 million this year in compensation. RSL's starting back line of Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, Robbie Russell, and Chris Schuler are to make just over $510,000 in combined compensation. When the face of your back line is making nine times what the best defense in MLS will take home in pay and can't back it up with his play, it will make that player the lightning rod for any troubles perceived by fans. It's unclear if Marquez could ever climb out of those lofty expectations -- or, as ESPN's Jeff Carlisle wonders, if New York should even let him try anymore.
Play of the Game: Ream's Inadvertent Assist. When a Saborio header put the Red Bulls behind on the score sheet early, it didn't hint at the troubles to follow. On the one hand, Teemu Tainio's adequate marking of the RSL forward just came up one step short as Saborio beat him by a step to connect with Williams's free kick. On the other hand, 15 draws this season can attest to New York's penchant for leveling any score in short order.
Then Tim Ream's youth reared its ugly head. Jan Gunnar Solli snuck out of RSL pressure by crossing a ball to Ream near New York's own penalty spot. However, Ream failed to cleanly receive Solli's pass as he felt pressure from a rushing Espindola. Rather than clear the ball, Ream effectively lined up Espindola's shot in the 11th minute as he tapped the ball forward to no one in particular. Espindola recovered the loose ball and beat a helpless Frank Rost to collect RSL's second goal of the night.
It wasn't so much the 2-0 deficit itself that made the game suddenly appear insurmountable as it was the back line's role in the collapse. In addition to Ream's gaffe, Espindola timed his run perfectly just ten minutes later to catch Solli and Marquez on their heels and flick a Collen Warner through ball past Rost for goal number three. And although the Red Bulls defense limited RSL to a meager six attempts on goal, it's of no comfort as half of those attempts found the back of the net.
"Unfortunately, two terrible individual mistakes changed the game," said Red Bulls coach Hans Backe. "I don’t think we played poor or anything, but it’s frustrating with that kind of individual mistake. It kills the first half definitely, and the game."
Dulled Edge. RSL's surgical precision with their strikes helped them control the run of play for the majority of Wednesday's match, but it wasn't for lack of effort on New York's part. The Red Bulls accrued double the attempts on goal, triple the number of corner kicks, and took as many shots on target as RSL took all night. They merely failed to finish any of those chances until Lindpere's volley put a crooked number in the home side's score column.
67 Minutes. That's how long it took the Red Bulls to register a shot on target. You can point to the four shots taken by Luke Rodgers and Thierry Henry that missed the mark, but it's unfair to fault them for a midfield that, except for Dane Richards, was invisible for large portions of the match. Lindpere followed up the first shot moments later with the Red Bulls first goal and Juan Agudelo almost finished a nice header in stoppage time before being stopped by Rimando, but it was all too little too late for German shot stopper Frank Rost.
"It’s difficult to answer right now after the match," said Rost. "We woke up too late. Only one half is not enough for the MLS. You have to play 90 minutes, not 45."
Two. That's the minimum number of wins New York will need to collect over their final five matches to reach Backe's declaration of needing 45 points to reach the playoffs. Backe's club can still reach that total with three wins or by collecting two wins and three ties, though neither possibility feels likely considering the club's recent form.
"We need to pick up wins, that’s for sure," said Backe. "Probably three or four wins out of five to make the playoffs."
New York will need to shake off this loss and prepare for a match ripe with playoff implications this Saturday against a Portland Timbers side hoping to reclaim a tiebreaker over the Red Bulls this weekend. First kick is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.