HARRISON, N.J. -- No matter how much talent is added, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this year's New York Red Bulls aren't much different from last year's disappointing team.
Listen to Hans Backe's explanation for the largely underwhelming performance in a 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City:
"Poor marking on two set-plays in the beginning," Backe said.
Or take a gander at Thierry Henry's complaints.
"Once again, we found ourselves 2-0 down after 20 minutes," Henry said. "That's how we've come out every game - home or away. "
If it sounds familiar, it's only because those complaints and excuses have been uttered by both men on a consistent basis for over the past two seasons.
Spectacular moments of brilliance from Henry aside, this Red Bulls will likely enter the playoffs with questions again looming about their lack of concentration on defense or cohesion on offense. And if Wednesday's night attendance serves as indication of fan belief in this team, then the anemic announced crowd of 10,234 should signal the lack of faith this team has inspired.
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Facing the Eastern Conference's top team, Sporting Kansas City, New York had a chance to signal its intent to the rest of Major League Soccer. It had a chance to prove why it should be taken seriously. Instead, the Red Bulls stumbled out of the gate at home, allowing a goal in the opening 12 minutes. While there was definitely some poor play on the field, some of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of Backe, who, after three years on the job, has yet to turn the league's top payroll into an assured contender.
Though it shouldn't have conceded two goals in the first 20 minutes, it is unfathomable that a team that features Henry, Tim Cahill, Sebastien Le Toux, Kenny Cooper and Rafa Marquez couldn't turn it around in the remaining 70 minutes of the game. But many of Backe's decisions appeared to shoot the team in the foot instead of improve its chances.
Cahill was brought to New York to be a playmaker for Henry, Cooper and Le Toux but instead was placed on top with Henry, limiting him from the free role where he's been effective for most of his career. The Swedish coach then pulled the team's hardest working player in Dax McCarthy to bring on Cooper, who was wasteful in his 45 minutes on the field. Finally, Backe deployed speedy winger Lloyd Sam as primarily a holding midfielder. It was questionable judgement from a usually solid coach.
No wonder fans aren't exactly lining up in front of the box office at Red Bulls Arena. The Red Bulls continue to falter in big moments.
It is very likely that an early playoff exit is possible and the same repetitive questions will be asked again. Cue Henry frustration quotes.
Marquez believes that the team needs to overcome its mental lapses if it has any chance of contending this year.
"It's a little bit of the cancer that we've had from the beginning of the season, we have been working with the coaching staff to try to change but there's been a lack of the concentration in the beginning of each of our games," he said through a translator.
"It's a totally different game when you don't have to go uphill," he said.
It might be difficult to imagine the Red Bulls hoisting the MLS Cup after the performance that Backe's men submitted on Wednesday night, but there are still some reasons for optimism. Though Henry and Marquez have won almost every top competition in Europe, Cahill has never been on a team that has won a league trophy. He's hungry and, from his comments, has the guts and confidence to motivate his teammates.
"I don't there's anything special to their team [Sporting Kansas City]," Cahill said. "I think we didn't perform tonight. That's definitely not the team I know. We've got a lot more fight than that."
With four games remaining in the regular season, it will be hard to determine whether or not the consistency is there, especially on the defensive end. But if the team is inspired heading into the postseason, it could change everything. It all comes down to Backe.
"I think there's always time to change this. I think it comes down to everyone embracing their role on this team, not only the DPs but everyone in the team feeling and believing we can turn this one around," Marquez said.
If this team doesn't at least make the MLS Cup final, it might be time for the Red Bulls to look in different coaching direction. The talent is there, the stadium and the resources are there. Isn't the rule three strikes and you're out?