WASHINGTON – The sight was all too familiar for New York Red Bulls fans: center back Markus Holgersson, a step slow, gets torched by his man. The defense shifts, but no one can quite compensate, and the play ends with rookie ‘keeper Ryan Meara picking the ball out of his net.
Then, as if in a communal case of déjà vu, it happens again in the second half.
The Swedish defender's outing in the 4-1 defeat to rivals D.C. United at RFK Stadium on Sunday was just his latest subpar performance as he adjusts to a new team and league. Fans and pundits alike are concerned, but Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe disagrees.
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As he has for much of the year, Backe defended Holgersson’s performance and was not concerned with his efforts, adding that the problem against United lay elsewhere.
“You think he’s struggling? … I would say it’s quite OK what he’s done,” Backe told reporters after the game on Sunday. “I think it’s more that we haven’t had the balance on midfield, because [the back four] are under pressure all the time if the midfield can’t do a better defending job. I think that’s probably the key.”
Backe has a point – Victor Palsson and Dax McCarty provided little in the way of defensive bite and were constantly overrun by Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon and Dwayne De Rosario.
But that does not change the fact that this Red Bulls defense has appeared porous often this season, and that Holgersson hasn’t dominated the way Backe and GM Erik Solér promised when signing the Swedish international.
Thus despite defending Holgersson, Backe also talked about subtracting an attacker to add a more defensive-minded player to the starting XI.
“We just need to do the best possible the next three, four, five games until the other guys are back,” said Backe, referencing the injured Wilman Conde, Teemu Tainio and Roy Miller as well as the suspended Rafa Márquez. “But we just need to work with our defending game. You could play a little bit more defending, but then you only play with one striker and with these guys scoring 14 goals, it should be a little bit tough to get Kenny, for example, on the bench.
“But on the road, probably we have to look at that if needed. We can’t do it at home, we need to still try to control games at home, but on the road we need to check to see if we have to play more tight.”
Through their first seven games this season, New York have surrendered 14 goals, the second-worst total in the league in front of only the expansion Montreal Impact.
“It’s so frustrating, it seems like every game [we give up easy goals],” said Stephen Keel. “We talk about it day in, day out. It’s not what we want and we’re not going to win a championship like that.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at Franco8813@gmail.com.