MLS Features: Red Bulls peaking, but not at the right time

    10:17 AM, Apr 9, 2012   |    comments
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    Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is no hotter team in Major League Soccer right now than Red Bull New York.

    Sure, Real Salt Lake has accumulated 15 points through six games and Sporting Kansas City has a perfect 5-0-0 record to start the season, but the Red Bulls are on an absolute tear at the moment.

    New York was slow out of the gate, losing successive road matches to FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake to open the new campaign in less than stellar fashion. But the club returned to the New York metropolitan area looking to get back on track with two straight home games.

    Preparation was key for the Red Bulls at that turning point as they looked to remedy a porous defense and tame offense that led to a pair of losses by a combined score of 4-1.

    "We certainly haven't been very sharp in our passing," Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty said leading up to the club's home opener on March 25. "[That] week, passing had been a main focus - making sure that we're keeping possession but not just keeping meaningless possession, keeping possession in the right areas of the field where we're going to be able to create chances."

    It is safe to say that paid off.

    In Red Bull Arena's first action of 2012, New York exploded for four goals in a 4-1 defeat of the Colorado Rapids. The fortunes didn't end there as the Red Bulls trounced the Montreal Impact, 5-2, in their following fixture, also in Harrison, New Jersey.

    But Saturday came time for another test as the Red Bulls hit the road in a bid to prove that they were capable of winning away from home. They passed with flying colors as three first-half goals helped Hans Backe's men dismantle the Columbus Crew in Ohio with another 4-1 victory.

    New York has played much better collectively over the three-game stretch, but at the heart of the resurgence is Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper.

    The duo has combined for 13 of the teams 14 goals on the season, 12 of which have come in their last three outings. Henry's MLS-best seven goals this season helped the Frenchman collect two consecutive Player of the Week awards as well as Player of the Month honors.

    Henry isn't just scoring; he is creating chances that his teammates (predominantly Cooper) are finishing. The former Arsenal striker became the first MLS player since John Wilmar Perez in 2001 to record at least one goal and one assist in three straight league games.

    Cooper has followed suit, trailing Henry by one goal to sit tied with Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes for second place on the scoring chart. His early success for New York this season has made Red Bulls supporters forget the name Luke Rodgers.

    The Red Bulls deserve all the credit thrown at them to this point in the season, but don't let it obstruct the view of the bigger picture.

    Any sport that institutes a playoff system ultimately rewards teams that finish strong. With the lengthy and rigorous regular season lasting until October, and the playoffs culminating with MLS Cup on Dec. 1, every team is bound to have rough patches and in-form runs.

    If the Red Bulls show this kind of potency in front of goal down the stretch, they could be well on their way to securing the first major trophy in club history. But there is no guarantee that they can recapture the stunning form they've displayed over the last three games at the time when it matters most.

    Take Sporting Kansas City's 2011 season as a key example. Sporting began the season with an abysmal 1-6-4 record, but it found its stride and overturned the poor start with a late surge that catapulted the club to a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference.

    Sporting ultimately bowed out of the playoffs to another side that exemplifies the importance of a strong finish. The Houston Dynamo concluded the 2011 regular season with a six-game unbeaten streak, an impressive run that carried over into postseason play. The Dynamo caught fire and rode their luck all the way to MLS Cup, where they lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

    Both teams embodied the mantra that playing your best in the late stages of the season gives your side the best chance at success. New York would do well to take notes in that regard.

    That's not to say that the Red Bulls should strategically try to toil in mediocrity until September and then begin to fire on all cylinders. That would be foolish (though potentially comical). It simply serves to remind spectators, players and coaches alike to keep their expectations in check. Silverware, after all, is not awarded in April.

    Fortunately for the Red Bulls, Henry does not appear to be getting carried away with his relative success this term. He still sees plenty of room for improvement before he can be fully satisfied.

    "I thought we played a great first half," the Frenchman said after the win over Columbus. "I don't think we played well at all in the second half. We invited them too much into our box. They should have and could have scored two or three goals to come back into the game, but they didn't. ... Overall, we are happy, but personally, I'm disappointed in the second half."

    Hopefully that match doesn't turn out to be a microcosm for New York's season.

    The Sports Network

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