Once high-flying, Red Bulls struggling to regain swagger

HARRISON, N.J. — All week long, the New York Red Bulls talked about needing to win on Saturday night against Columbus. They backed up their talk for more than 90 minutes — before conceding a stoppage-time equalizer in a bitterly disappointing 1-1 draw with Columbus.

New York haven’t won since late April with Saturday night extending their winless streak in league play to six games. It is nearing crisis mode stuff for the Red Bulls, with the league’s most star-studded and expensive roster now seemingly unable to win or close out matches.

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It all looked promising from nearly the get-go, a ninth-minute goal by midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy combined with some inept play at forward by Columbus seemingly gift-wrapping the Red Bulls with what should have been three points. But a 92nd-minute goal by the Crew’s Rich Balchan off a defensive breakdown on the right side of the back line left the Red Bulls wanting after what is now a fourth straight tie.

“Hard stuff for us to lose two points like that,” head coach Hans Backe said after the match. “We should have closed it down the final two minutes.”

The Red Bulls now seem to be a team without a sense of direction. Six regulars who have started matches for the team will be missing for the better part of this month, away with their national teams for the Gold Cup. New York have struggled with their poise and presence in recent matches even with these stars, holding possession for large chunks but having conceded three penalties in as many games leading up to Saturday night.

Now, a late-game meltdown has players like defender Stephen Keel saying, “It goes down as a tie and a point, but it feels like a loss.”

The mood inside the Red Bulls locker room was dour to say the least. Forward Thierry Henry, usually cordial to accommodate postmatch press requests, said through a team spokesperson that he “respectfully declined to make any comments." Backe was heard by the media venting his frustration verbally. And Luke Rodgers put the scene into words.

“Everyone is fuming in there,” Rodgers said. “There’s a lot of arguing.”

But despite the drop in points, Backe isn’t ready to hit the panic button quite yet.

“I don’t think anyone can say it is must win," the Red Bulls head coach said of the state the team finds itself in. "I would be very, very happy if we could pick up one point the next three weeks every game. We can’t have any expectations with six players out. That is naïve and very, very stupid to think you have the depth like that.”

Predictably, the Red Bulls players differed with their coach’s expectations over the next few weeks, even with the absence of so many regulars in the starting XI. Keel didn’t necessarily agree with Backe’s assessment.

“It’s up to him,” Keel said. “He’s the boss, but every guy in here would be lying if he said they weren’t disappointed.”

The Red Bulls are now left to pick up the pieces and see if they can find the winning formula that elevated them to the top of the Eastern Conference less than a month ago. The finger-pointing described by Rodgers is systemic of a club that appears to have lost its way and isn’t sure how to find it again.

“[We’re] disappointed,” Ballouchy said. “I think our biggest challenge right now is to get our heads up.”

Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer