Lo and behold. The greatest team on paper in MLS history is sitting on the outside looking in of the playoffs today (they’re tied with D.C. United for the final spot on 31 points but DC has two games in hand).
But all is not lost. The Red Bulls are the greatest team on paper because they have the best squad of players. What has ailed them is the fact that manager Hans Backe has struggled to find the right combination of those players on the field.
Here are the five moves the Swede needs to make to halt the Red Bulls’ slide with nine matches left in the season:
1) Ballouchy Becomes Super-Sub: There is no question the Moroccan native is talented and can connect passes. But he struggles to impact a match. His best use is off the bench to inspire the team with his creativity in sticky situations.
Ballouchy is a tactical enigma on the field, playing in every position in midfield and at forward but never laying a strong claim to any one. It’s déjà vu after what happened with Ballouchy — or rather without Ballouchy — in Colorado, where manager Gary Smith tried him in every position on the field to little result.
When he was traded to New York late last year, the Rapids went on a 6-2-3 run, and won MLS Cup after going 7-6-6 in matches Ballouchy started.
Of the six matches the Red Bulls have won this year, Ballouchy did not start in four of them. The Emirates Cup run also did not feature the Moroccan.
2) Midfield Domino Effect: With Ballouchy on the bench, Backe needs to shift Joel Lindpere back out to the left. Not only does that allow him to better capitalize on his work rate, but it gives him an opportunity to combine with Thierry Henry against more favorable numbers and usually in more space on the flank.
Next, Rafael Márquez needs to come back into central midfield as the deep-lying player, pushing Dax McCarty into a similar role he occupied in Dallas: more attack-minded but not solely responsible for generating the attacks, which eventually led to his trade from D.C. United where he served as the No. 10. Henry will be the de facto playmaker.
So for those keeping score, that’s a Lindpere-McCarty-Márquez-Richards diamond midfield going left to right. Teemu Tainio would be the substitute when it's time to remove a forward to kill off a match.
3) Start Juan Agudelo: With Luke Rodgers struggling to get healthy, there’s no time to worry about whether nine starts to end the season here will get to Augdelo’s head. He has talent to bust open a game and the Red Bulls can’t afford to keep him on reserve.
4) Mendes Replaces Márquez: The veteran center back will not send the pinpoint ball to Henry in stride like Márquez can, but he will bang bodies better than him. Plus, the Mexican’s leadership is needed in the heart of the field, where he can get on the ball more. Mendes would provide ample cover.
5) Make Bouna Coundoul the undisputed No. 1: Whether he goes to Senegal for matches or not, there’s no more time to fiddle with the starting goalkeeper position. With Frank Rost out injured, Coundoul's the most experienced option and, although he may be suspect in single moments, assigning him the starting spot for the rest of the season could settle him down.
Oh no, some Red Bulls fans might say. So many changes? So late in the season? Look back at last year’s lineups. The switches are not radical. And it’s the same coach.
What’s more important than even making these tweaks? Stick with the lineup for the rest of the season and tell the team you plan to do that.
If Márquez’s comments after last weekend’s home draw against the Chicago Fire are any indication, the team is tired of the constant shifting around, part of which has been caused by injuries.
“We’ve changed our team a lot and it’s never the same team,” he said. “We’ve also changed players. We’ve not maintained a base.”