UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – New York Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe stood outside the team’s practice facility at Montclair State University this past week gushing about one performance in particular in last weekend's 3-0 drubbing of San Jose by a player he said was the difference-maker.
But it wasn't Thierry Henry or Luke Rodgers – it was Teemu Tainio, whose name hasn’t been in the scoring summary since an assist in Week 1.
“Man of the match,” Backe said of Tainio's day against the Earthquakes. “Absolutely [the] best player on the pitch. His passing game is fantastic.”
Tainio came to the Red Bulls with plenty of international experience from the Finnish national team. A veteran of the English Premier League, where he was a fixture at Tottenham, Tainio transferred from legendary Dutch club Ajax this February to come to MLS.
“I knew a lot about this league, about this team,” Tainio told MLSsoccer.com. “I knew it was a good league, and I knew this was an ambitious side that wanted to do a lot – that did things the right way and had a good coaching staff with Hans, that had someone in Erik Solér who was good in management.”
In the season opener, Tainio angled a beautiful ball over the top of the Seattle back line that fell perfectly onto the timed run of Juan Agudelo, who moments later scored the game’s only goal. Since then, Tainio hasn’t contributed an assist and he’s still looking for his first MLS goal, but his impact on the club has been huge.
It's that sort of a quiet impact that will help the Red Bulls in matches like Thursday night at RFK Stadium in a derby against D.C. United (8 pm ET, ESPN2/Deportes).
Tainio’s calm and composure on the ball helps settle New York defensively and starts thing in the attack.
Playing what is essentially a holding midfielder role, Tainio has shrugged off some pretty stiff challenges to jumpstart the Red Bulls attack. His movement off the ball readies himself to be a release valve for a teammate under pressure and his distribution has been outstanding.
“He’s the balance of the team,” defender Rafa Márquez said. “He’s the glue of the team.”
Tainio does seem to make things stick for New York. Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, it was Tainio who put himself in position time after time right in front of the Red Bulls back line to clean up the Union’s counterattack. The Finn has been crucial in New York keeping possession.
"He’s a player who always seems to be there,” said second-year center back Tim Ream.
In other words, Tainio is doing the little things, something this team hasn’t had in the midfield for years. That's somewhat surprising because when he joined the team on trial during preseason in Mexico, Backe had eyed him originally for the back line.
“I knew he’d be a good player, but I didn’t think he’d be that accurate [passing],” Backe said. “He’s too good to play right full back.”
On a star-studded New York side, with names like Henry and Márquez and rising young US national team prospects such as Agudelo and Ream, it might be the man from Finland who is the most important player on the pitch. It is tireless stuff from Tainio for 90 minutes and it won’t grab any headlines, but he’s OK with that.
“My role isn’t too get the goals or always be pretty,” Tainio said. “I do the things to help the team, to help get or keep possession. That’s my role. Others can make the big plays; I am just concerned about helping the team win.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer