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Apr 5, 2010

Red Bulls toughen up defensive side

As the New York Red Bulls celebrated their 1-0 victory over Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday -- which just so happened to be their first regular-season road victory since the Bush Administration -- one statistic in particular caught the eye: Eight of the 11 players in the Red Bulls' starting lineup were holdovers from last year's team that finished dead last in MLS. No doubt, head coach Hans Backe deserves some credit for building a tougher, more organized side, with many of the same parts. But Backe also deserves kudos for the additions he made to the lineup. In particular defender Tim Ream and center midfielder Joel Lindpere have done plenty to reinforce the spine of the Red Bulls. Ream has brought a composed element to a Red Bulls backline that last year was severely lacking in that department. Not only has Ream's passing out of the back been top-notch, but his well-timed tackles are reminiscent of former New England center back Michael Parkhurst. Lindpere has brought a similar confidence to New York's midfield, and even as Seattle launched wave upon wave of attacks in the latter stages of Saturday's contest, Lindpere's savvy and organizational ability, not to mention his tackling and distribution, allowed New York to ultimately break its 27-game road winless streak. This is not to say that New York is a team without flaws. The Red Bulls looked especially vulnerable on the right flank, and one can expect Jeremy Hall to be tested often by opponents. But whenever a team exhibits strength in the center of both its midfield and defense, they'll be competitive. For the Red Bulls, this stands as a marked improvement from the debacle that was 2009. Mansally at the double: Following New England's 2-0 victory over D.C. United last Saturday, the biggest talking point was substitute Kenny Mansally's two goals. Without question, both strikes fell into the category of "well-taken" with Mansally's second tally -- a curling, 23-yard shot over United goalkeeper Troy Perkins that found the top corner -- of particularly high quality. But had Mansally not contributed in other more subtle ways, he never would have been in the position to play the role of hero. For much of the evening, possession was a foreign concept for the Revs. Not only was there some scattershot passing out of midfield, but the forward tandem of Kheli Dube and Zack Schilawski could never hold the ball up with enough consistency to allow the speedier elements of New England's attack, namely Sainey Nyassi, to join in. Yet the buildup to New England's first goal in the 80th minute revealed the full spectrum of Mansally's contribution. The Gambian's greater awareness with his back to goal allowed him to receive Dube's initial pass and find Chris Tierney with a precise feed out to the left wing. And while there was an element of good fortune present when Tierney's subsequent cross was deflected straight to Mansally in the box, the Revolution forward made his luck count with an authoritative finish that was the residue of his work earlier in the sequence. If the Revs can continue to get that kind of play out of Mansally in the coming weeks, they just may be able to survive the glut of injuries that has claimed the likes of Shalrie Joseph and Taylor Twellman. Lost in space: While the goal by Colorado Rapids forward Omar Cummings against Chicago last Saturday was a sublime strike, it was also classic case of Cool Hand Luke defending. What we had here was a failure to communicate. When Cummings first latched on to Mehdi Ballouchy's pass in the 13th minute, a poor first touch nearly cost him possession. But it had the benefit of baiting Fire midfielder Logan Pause into taking a bad angle towards Cummings, resulting in him being on the wrong side of the Colorado forward. No problem, right? The rest of the Chicago backline was still behind him. Except that the entire complement of Fire defenders proceeded to drop back inside its own penalty area, leaving Cummings with sufficient time and space to line up and deposit his 25-yard strike into the Fire goal. While it's tempting to blame such a transgression on the inexperience of rookie defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe, veterans Pause and C.J. Brown were closer to the Colorado forward, and should have realized the necessity of stepping to Cummings and denying him a clear look at goal. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Pappa: Chicago's up-and-down day that ended in a 2-2 tie was best exemplified by Fire midfielder Marco Pappa. On the plus side, the Guatemalan's pinpoint delivery from a corner kick led to Collins John's first-ever MLS goal. Pappa later sprung Patrick Nyarko down the wing in a sequence that led to the midfielder earning a penalty that was later converted by Brian McBride. But Pappa was culpable on two counts in the run-up to Conor Casey's first-half goal. Not only did the Fire midfielder lose possession to start the sequence, but his clumsy challenge on Rapids midfielder Colin Clark saw him whistled for a penalty from which Casey eventually scored. Perhaps in a bid to protect him defensively, Pappa was moved into a more central role to start the second half, and it will be interesting to see if Fire manager Carlos de los Cobos leaves him there this week against San Jose. The future is now for Landin: With Houston forward Brian Ching set to miss the next several weeks due to the hamstring injury he sustained against Real Salt Lake last Thursday, the Dynamo will now be leaning heavily on Designated Player Luis Angel Landin. Of course, "heavily" is the operative word here, as the Mexican looks about as close to game fitness as Mr. Creosote of Monty Python fame. But at least Houston manager Dominic Kinnear can take comfort in the fact that against RSL, Landin made a significant contribution to what was a confidence-boosting 2-1 victory. While the Mexican was not on the scoresheet, he did win the penalty -- with the help of some theatrics -- that led to Brad Davis' game-winning goal. Given Landin's rather meager contribution to this point, Kinnear will count this as good news. But for Landin to truly earn his keep, he'll need to make many more game-changing plays this season.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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