By Alex Labidou
The Resurgent Red Bulls Defense Is Held Together By An Athletic Bouna Coundoul at Goal
There were plenty of lessons learned by the Red Bulls in their season opening 1-0 victory over the Chicago Fire last night. The offense which scored a measly 27 goals last season is still a work in progress, especially as Juan Pablo Angel works on regaining his fitness. The midfield still has some questions to be answered, even though Joel Lindpere has been stunning in his first two games in Red Bulls Stadium. If there is one good thing to report, it is the team’s vast improvement on defense which looked rock solid and at times even intimidating.
Expected to be one of the team’s question marks heading in the season, goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul has brought his solid form from preseason into the team’s opening MLS game. Coundoul definitely earned his paycheck during last night’s victory. The 28-year old Senegalese player was constantly diving for loose balls, catching crosses and making clutch saves whenever needed. Every time the Fire seemed to be gaining a little bit of momentum, the athletic Red Bulls goalie thwarted any possibility of a comeback. Coundoul’s stellar performance led him to be the first man of the match in Red Bull Stadium.
As impressive as Coundoul was, he is only the final cog of a much revamped defense under new head coach Hans Backe. Throughout preseason, Backe continually stressed defense and ball movement and so far it has paid. Unorganized and often too stagnant last season, the Red Bulls defense this season has been sparked by the additions of Costa Rican full back Roy Miller and rookie center back Tim Ream as well as the decision to make Coundoul the team’s starter at goal.
Keeping up with the trend that is quickly becoming popular in European soccer, Backe has given a lot of freedom to his two fullbacks in Miller and last year’s first round pick Jeremy Hall. During preseason and in last night’s game, it wasn’t uncommon to see Miller and Hall interchange with midfield players and become part of the team’s attack. While it is still a work in progress, Hall believes the coach’s philosophy will ultimately make the team much more difficult to defend.
“Hans tells Roy and myself to get more into the attack,” said Hall. “It makes it very difficult for the other team to predict. Now the team’s back has to deal with me on the open field and we can get more numbers on the attack. It allows us to play more of a possession game instead of us just sitting in the back, we can be a part of the midfield as well. “
As well as the goalie and both full backs played in the team’s season debut, the defense’s foundation in the center was equally as impressive. Even after playing 13 years in the MLS, it is clear that Mike Petke hasn’t lost much in terms of skill and his experience and knowledge at the position have turned him into a very cerebral player. The veteran is still very valuable especially considering his partnership with second round draft pick Ream. Pairing the two together has created a formidable tandem and Ream has been reaping the benefits playing well under Petke’s mentorship.
Unfazed by the expectations of over 20,000 fans, Ream repaid first year coach Hans Backe’s faith by making a solid MLS debut in the back four. Aside from a few early jitters, the 22-year old rookie from St. Louis University looked like a poised veteran helping preserve a clean sheet while going against the likes of Brian McBride, arguably one of the greatest forwards to play on the US Men’s National Team, and Patrick Nyarko, an up and coming pacey striker. Ream relished the opportunity to play against McBride who is also an alum of the Billikens and felt it gave him a good barometer of the challenges ahead.
“It was a neat experience, I mean it’s always challenge no matter what striker you play,” said Ream. “But to play against one of the best strikers that the league has ever seen, whose played in the top division in Europe (The Premier League) , it was a privilege and I thought I did pretty well against him.”
Ream has already made a significant impression on both team players and coaches. Coundoul sees big things for the rookie’s future.
“Since day one in preseason, I’ve said this is the guy I could see in the [U.S] national team within two years” said Coundoul. “Physically and technically, he has everything and as long as he continues to work, the sky is the limit.”
Free Kicks :
*It might be too early to make this assessment but I do believe that Chicago will miss Cuauhtémoc Blanco this season. Backe still believes that the Fire will be one of the best teams in the MLS but it was obvious that the Fire lacked some of the creativity that Blanco provided every game despite his lack of pace.
* For all of the talk about the Red Bulls needing to go after a midfielder with one of their designated player slots, personally I believe the team needs a right back to allow Jeremy Hall to move to his natural position at left midfielder. It is clear that as talented as both Danleigh Bowman and Roy Miller are at left back, a natural left midfielder would greatly help on the attack. I’m probably stroking those Paolo Maldini to the Red Bulls fires again but the team desperately needs a veteran full-back. I have another interesting suggestion, what about current Manchester United right back Gary Neville? He might not have much left in the tank but he is still a valuable player and would provide some solid edge and experience on the right side. The 35-year old former England international will be a free agent after June….
*How about Chelsea’s 7-1 thrashing over Aston Villa? With Didier Drogba resting on the bench? Wow. This might be honestly more of a crushing defeat for the Villains than the 9-1 spanking that Wigan got from Tottenham a few months ago. Wigan is a relegation fighting team led by the likes of Hugo Rodallega, Charles N’Zogbia and on occasion Maynor Figueroa. Villa is a team that is led by highly regarded coach Martin O’Neill and features the likes of internationals like Ashley Young, Gabby Abonglahor, John Carew and Brad Friedel, they have ambitions of playing Champions League Football. Year after year, it is becoming blatantly obvious that Villa should purposely lose any of its cup ties and Europa League games just so that the team’s starting XI can’t use the same half-baked excuse it always does about being too fatigued come March. There is a reason why every season Villa starts strong and fades just as quickly and why Everton no matter how they start always finish emphatically.
One more tidbit, it looks like Florent Malouda is finally living up to considerable hype he had joining Chelsea a few years ago. While the team still desperately needs to add pace to its attack (possibly Sergio Aguero?), it was good to see how damaging both he and Yuri Zhirkov were on the left flanks.
View From The Laboratory is written by Alex Labidou. Throughout the 2010 MLS season, he will provide insights on the New York Red Bulls as well as inside rumors and hilarious tales of irrelevance. Labidou joined 90:00 Soccer as a contributor in August 2009 and has worked as a journalist for VIBE, NBA.com, ABC News (20/20) and New York Newsday. He can be reached at AlexLabidou@gmail.com.