Possession not leading to New York goals
Hans Backe is one of the more laid-back head coaches in Major League Soccer, but on Saturday night the frustration could be felt in his words and seen on his face. Facing questions about his New York Red Bulls' 1-0 loss to Philadelphia, Backe spoke with a disappointment at his own team's latest flat performance, and had some clear contempt for the team that just shut out his high-priced squad.
Down the hall at PPL Park, Peter Nowak packed a big grin when asked about how Backe's comments about the Union. Backe went as far as to say New York dominated Philadelphia and there was "only one team on the pitch." Without missing a beat, Nowak shot down the notion that, somehow, his team didn't deserve Saturday's vital victory.
"If you make a thousand passes but don't score a goal, it doesn't really matter," Nowak said, referring to New York's big edge in possession. "What matters is teamwork and organization. They are a good team but so are we."
Even Backe couldn't argue with that, acknowledging at the end of his own press conference that Philadelphia will be a tough team to beat. A month into the season that has proven to be true. The Union stands four points ahead of the pack in the Eastern Conference thanks to a stingy defense that has been bolstered by a group of veteran reinforcements that have strengthened a once-leaky back-line.
Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, defender Carlos Valdes, midfielder Brian Carroll and forward Carlos Ruiz have helped give the Union experience, quality and perhaps as important as anything, toughness the Union lacked in its inaugural 2010 season. Nowak knows about tough teams. He captained a fierce 1998 Chicago Fire team that won an MLS Cup in its expansion season, then he coached a fiesty but talented D.C. United team to the 2004 MLS Cup title in his first season as a professional head coach.
Nowak isn't ready to talk championships, but he will also point out that, while his team isn't scoring goals in bunches (three goals in four matches), winning three 1-0 games is the sign of a strong team, not a weak one.
"If you look at great teams around the world, they can win 1-0 games," Nowak said. "Think about the (MLS) playoffs. Do you think there are going to be wide-open games in the playoffs? No, the games are tough and sometimes one goal is all you need if your team is strong enough."
Backe would have gladly taken a goal for his Red Bulls on Saturday. The most expensive team in MLS history stumbled yet again and has managed just two goals and one win in four games, and rather than being in first place in the East as expected, the Red Bulls are four points behind Philadelphia.
There is no denying the talent New York boasts all over the field, but its loaded lineup has yet to really click. Thierry Henry still isn't delivering the quality expected of him when he was signed last summer, and until he does, New York may struggle to dominate the way it should.
All is not lost for New York, not by a longshot. Dwayne De Rosario is still getting adjusted to his new teammates, but he should help bolster the offense, as he did in his debut a week ago, while Juan Agudelo hit the woodwork twice against Philadelphia and has looked dangerous early on this season. Off-season acquisitions Teemu Tainio and Jan Gunnar Solli also look like very good additions.
So why aren't the Red Bulls winning just yet? It boils down to the team's inability to execute in the final third, either with better final passes or better finishing. New York's technical ability as a team is unmatched in MLS, and the Red Bulls passing in the first half against Philadelphia was clean and sharp, but as Nowak said so eloquently, all the Red Bulls possession doesn't mean anything if they can't find the net.
The goals should come for New York, but the Red Bulls won't meet their lofty expectations until Henry gets going and starts going after defenders rather than deferring and looking to make passes rather than taking shots.
If Henry does wake up, New York's days of being shutout should be over, but even if the Red Bulls get going they'll still find a tough and much-improved Philadelphia Union squad waiting to challenge them for the Eastern Conference title.
MLS Player of the Week
David Ferreira reminded us why he was 2010 MLS MVP with his dynamic forays forward and two goals in FC Dallas' 3-0 thrashing of the Colorado Rapids. With Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman building a faster and more technical team around Ferreira, the Colombian playmaker should have another big season for the Western Conference champions, and last Friday's brace could be the first of many big performances from Ferreira.
MLS Rookie of the Week
Houston Dynamo forward Will Bruin was a threat all match and his fast and physical style troubled the Vancouver back-line for much of Sunday's 3-1 Dynamo victory. Bruin's work ultimately paid off when he scored his first professional goal by running onto a Davis long pass and beating goalkeeper Jay Nolly to the ball before delivering a clean finish.
MLS Team of the Week
FC Dallas thoroughly dominated previously-unbeaten Colorado last Friday, looking more like the team who ran through the Western Conference playoffs in 2010. Moving Brek Shea to left back and returning Ugo Ihemelu to centerback alongside George John produced a very impressive defensive effort, but it was the work of the speedy attack that really has to have opponents worried.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.