Commentary

Win has Red Bulls at a loss for words

How did they rout the Rapids? They can't explain it

Updated: March 26, 2012, 1:25 PM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

Theirry HenryAP Photo/Julio CortezTheirry Henry scored two goals and registered an assist in the Red Bulls' impressive win.

HARRISON, N.J. -- It was a scene not witnessed in a very long while. In recent times after games, the melancholy of a wake typically hung in the air of the New York Red Bulls locker room. Sullen-looking players would hurriedly make their escape. On some days during the Red Bulls' disastrous 2011 season, the room would be abandoned within 20 minutes of the final whistle, the morsels of sod, empty energy drink bottles and discarded medical tape on the floor remaining as the only proof soccer players had once been there. All that was missing then were drifting tumbleweeds and the howl of the unobstructed wind.

On Sunday afternoon, however, house music thumped from a locker room suddenly turned lively. This surprising occurrence came on the back of another sight rarely seen of late: the Red Bulls dominating an opponent.

With a 4-1 drubbing of the erstwhile impressive Colorado Rapids, the embattled New York franchise, still fielding the second-priciest team in MLS history, had begun overturning its tepid 0-2 start to the season with an impressive 4-1 win. Hence the boisterous beats, selected by the revelatory new central defender Wilman Conde.

"Some questionable songs in here," quipped rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara.

"I would agree," Jan Gunnar Solli said right back. Teammates call him "DJ" for his off-field exploits. Solli will soon release three more dance tracks. "But if it gets [Conde] going, I have no problem. I tolerate a lot."

Whatever it was exactly that had gotten them going on Sunday, the Red Bulls, authors of the streakiest year in memory, were a team transformed in their 2012 home opener.

Instructed that the Rapids were prone to coughing up the ball in the center of the park -- an effect exacerbated by the absence of stalwart central midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz -- the Red Bulls pressed hard and intercepted the ball there in the third minute, inciting a lonely run at goal for Thierry Henry. Another ball intercepted in the middle led to a through ball from Henry to Kenny Cooper. Those two plays produced the only goals New York would need.

From there, New York displayed all kinds of traits previously alien to it. It defended compactly, pressed effectively, stretched out rapidly and zipped the ball around cleanly in possession. The Red Bulls even showed a little flair. At last, the team played with the composure expected of a team with players of this stature. In the 53rd minute, Conde played a splendid ball over the top to Henry, who had run away from the sleepy Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne and easily curled his effort around Matt Pickens to make it 3-0. A bad giveaway by the otherwise strong -- and more notably, sometimes smiling -- Rafa Marquez in the 77th minute allowed Omar Cummings to deftly lob Meara to ruin the shutout. But an 89th-minute rampage up the left by Roy Miller handed Cooper his second goal on a platter. Henry even passed up a gilt-edged chance to make it 5-1 in the 93rd minute, when he failed one-on-one against Pickens.

But what was it that had been so dramatically different? Nobody quite knew.

In spite of being winless, "the confidence was pretty high," said Henry.

[+] EnlargeHans Backe
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesRed Bulls coach Hans Backe didn't really expound on his team's win.

"You could see it in the warm-ups, how focused the players were," head coach Hans Backe said as an attempted explanation.

"We ratcheted up the intensity a little bit, for whatever reason," posited midfielder Dax McCarty.

"You could definitely sense a bit of a difference, a bit of urgency," tried Meara.

Nobody could put his finger on it. Sometimes what turns a team around is unknowable, much less explicable. Losers turn into winners overnight. And sometimes winners, like the Red Bulls not so long ago, turn into losers.

One thing that is evident is that the Red Bulls remain a team that needs to work itself into a hole before it can summon wins from the depths of their troubles.

"We knew coming into the game that it was pretty much a must-win for us," McCarty said. "We didn't talk about it but I think everybody knew that was how it was going to be.

"I feel like we do play better when our backs are against the wall. It's something I can't really explain but I think today we played with a fire that we don't show enough, that comes out when we're challenged."

"I wish not but it seems like [the pressure to win] helped us today," said Solli.

Whatever it was that set the Red Bulls on the right path -- the music, the confidence, the focus, the intensity, the urgency, or, as Henry suggested, the lack of mistakes -- they hope they can make it materialize again at crucial moments throughout the year. That it will be on their side in the playoffs. That it will help them avoid a third consecutive conference semifinals exit. That it will spare them another year labeled as an expensive disappointment. That it will put an end to their designation as the most confounding team in the league.

Whatever that may be.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.