Saturday, May 12, 2007

The best of times, the worst of times

It would be cliche, and perhaps misplaced hyperbole, to compare this season's New York Red Bulls to A Tale of Two Cities. But while this past week hasn't provided the worst possible results, the early success this team has enjoyed has turned a draw and a loss into gut-wrenching disappointments.

There is much to be optimistic about. Clint Mathis seems to have found his form at the start of his second stint with the team, scoring impressive goals that make New York fans nostalgic for his glory days that many seasons ago. Where Mathis is the past and present, Josmer Altidore appears to be the future, putting in masterful performances and drawing comparisons with that other teenage phenom that plays for Real Salt Lake. Most excitingly, Juan Pablo Angel's paperwork finally came through, and his contribution has already paid dividends with a goal in his midweek debut.

Such exciting prospects for this team has been dulled somewhat by the events of the past week, however. An impressive yet predictable two-goal lead away was squandered away late in the game by New York, as a questionable penalty kick call and an improbable stoppage time goal saw Real Salt Lake draw with the Red Bulls, preserving the puzzling hex Rice-Eccles Stadium has on this team. More confounding is the context of RSL's comeback, which came on the heels of a morale-dampening front office shuffle that finally saw the firing of John Ellinger, but leading to the retirement of the team's most potent striker, Jason Kreis, who easily became the youngest coach in MLS history. Pitted against this disorderly team which had yet to win a game this season, anything less than three points proved to be a major disappointment to Bruce Arena and his squad.

Further out West, the Red Bulls had hoped to restart their amazing run in Los Angeles with a win in Open Cup qualifying. And while Juan Pablo Angel scored that aforementioned goal in extra time at The Home Depot Center, a game that the away team had dominated in regulation was witness to an overtime collapse that had allowed three Galaxy goals to New York's one, against a backup keeper in Steve Cronin, who decided on Tuesday to have the game of his life.

New York regroups at home to play the Colorado Rapids on Sunday afternoon. The Rapids, who have only one win at their new Dick's Sporting Goods Park, may be happy to go on the road after another perplexing draw with Real Salt Lake. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, will try to preserve their perfect record at Giants Stadium, which has earned the team the full six points after two home games.

Against a Rapids team that allowed an embarrassing own goal in their own house, the Red Bulls will look forward to scoring a few goals over the weekend. They will have many options, but one of them, Clint Mathis, is an improbable choice at the start of the season, made more likely after three goals and an assist after four games. It makes one ponder an obvious question.

Q1: Is Clint Mathis "back"?
Yes - 11
No - 1


Whether it was in Germany or with RSL or Colorado, Mathis always seemed to fall short of expectations, building on the label of "has-been" in the face of wasted potential. To Red Bull fans, it should have been obvious that Mathis' return to New York made perfect sense.

"He is one of the very few athletes that thrive in NY," said panelist Rooney20. And while Clint's affection for the metropolitan area was never in doubt, his work ethic never seemed to be tied to the team until now.

For certain, Mathis' place in team history is secure. Time will tell, however, if he is for real, or if he is just another New York streaky sports figure the likes of Alex Rodriguez or John Starks. "[Mathis] usually shows flashes of brilliance, then fades," said crusio, the only no vote among the panel.

Despite plenty of options up front, a tie and a loss this past week will certainly make New York re-examine their strength in the back.

Q2: Is Jon Conway a capable backup to Ronald Waterreus?
Yes - 8
No - 4

Conway entered the second half enjoying the lead, but ended the game allowing two goals very late. Though the game was marred by questionable refereeing, Conway's time in goal this past weekend has given some fans pause.

"He is OK in a pinch but I would be nervous to have him start too many matches or in a big match," said Onionsack. Fans can recall the Eastern Conference semifinal at RFK Stadium last season, as a tied score on aggregate was thrown away after Conway allowed Christian Gomez to score in the final five minutes of DC's series win. Or maybe fans remember Barcelona's drubbing of both Tony Meola and Conway in last year's August friendly.

Despite these results, other results throughout Conway's time with the Red Bulls have swung in his favor, and he has managed to endear himself to the New York faithful. And the team's backup keeper can be forgiven for giving up a lead in a game where the referee could've taken the game's MVP. "The two goals scored at the end of the RSL match were not Conway's fault and they shouldn't be seen as an indictment of his ability," insisted Irishapple.

But if everything is set at goalkeeper, the defense may be responsible for any problem so far. However, the panel was unable to find any consensus on this question.

Q3: Does the Red Bull defense need improvement?
Yes - 6
No - 6

One might think that the fan's perspective about New York's defense would be more clear, given that the team hadn't allowed a single goal in its first four regular season games. But with five of the six goals allowed by New York being scored after the 85th minute, one may have to wonder about the endurance of a team that may have proven it can run dry before the job is done.

Yet, Asprilla9 sees it more as a matter of the mind than physical fitness. "It comes down to mental toughness, and maintaining one's focus."

Despite the questions on the defense, others have ultimately dismissed the RSL game as a minor hiccup. Panelist ag nigrin even shows optimism, saying, "In the past we would have lost a game like that."

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