HANOVER, N.J. – In many ways, Real Salt Lake are what the New York Red Bulls would like to be.
No, the Red Bulls did not flat out say that in advance of the two teams’ meeting at Red Bull Arena on Saturday (7 pm ET, watch on MLS Live). But reading between the lines, it is easy to understand why New York would like to resemble an RSL team that is consistently among the league’s best and was recently riding an eight-game unbeaten streak despite missing a handful of their starters due to international duty.
“It’s the best team,” Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry told reporters Thursday. “I said it for a very long time. I know they didn’t win the MLS Cup like for the past two years but I will maintain it: They have been the best team since I’ve arrived here.
“Very difficult to beat. They are playing without some key players going to the Gold Cup and they still manage to win games. … Since I have been in this league, Salt Lake has been the best team by a distance but as you know here you have to win the MLS Cup. If it was in any other league, San Jose would have been champions last year but in terms of consistency, since I have been in the league, for me, [RSL] have been the best.”
Henry may have referenced Real Salt Lake as the best team in the league four times alone in that response, but praise for the team currently with the most points in the league did not end there. Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke also expressed a deep admiration for RSL boss Jason Kreis, who at age 40 already has an MLS Cup title to his name and the reputation of being one of the top managers in the league.
Petke also talked about how important it is to establish an identity, something that Kreis has done to great effect since taking over at Real Salt Lake in 2007 and something that the rookie Red Bulls coach is still trying to accomplish with a roster that was largely inherited.
“We’ll get more of an identity as the years go on,” said Petke. “This was a team that was put together by many people that I stepped into and I’m very happy to have all these players here. But as far as what the identity I want it to be, we’re a bit off from that but that’s normal.
“It’s been five months into my job. I’m still trying to figure out where I want to go with this team, where this team can go, so as an identity I would love to say that we are a hard-working, fight-to-the-end type of team but sometimes this year we haven’t shown that."
New York know they will need to show that and then some if they are to knock off Kreis and Real Salt Lake this weekend. Do that and they will move one step closer to being the team that they so deeply admire.
“They look the most complete at the minute,” said midfielder Tim Cahill. “They’re scoring their goals and obviously not conceding a lot but they seem to get the edge on a lot of teams.
“But for us we’re very good at home. We put on a great performance [in a 4-0 win over the Montreal Impact on] and you know the pressure was on then so I suppose it’s up to us to step up to the challenge again.“
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.