By DAVE MARTINEZ
HARRISON, N.J. — New York Red Bulls midfielder Joel Lindpere just hasn’t been himself.
The Estonian standout, who compiled eight goals and five assists through a total of 37 games last season, has failed to register a single shot on goal through four starts and seven appearances; an effort that has cost him a starting spot with the team.
“I’m concerned, I must say,” Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said of Lindpere's struggles. “He’s been one of the most, probably with Roy Miller, the guy who has started every game for two years, being involved in 15-16 points in goals and assists (in 2011) and of course he’s a key player for us.
So what could be the problem? "I don’t have the answer," Backe said. "I just have the feeling, as I told him – go forward. Show me an end product. I don’t care if you lose 1-v-1 but attack, attack, attack more. It has been a little too much of a safe play with back passes, side passes instead of turning, take them on 1-v-1. Hopefully we can tell him, 'Come on, be the attacking guy you used to be.'”
For Lindpere, who looks set to return to the starting lineup on Saturday vs. New England due to injuries, the answer lies a bit deeper than that.
“If I compare myself to different types of players, I’ve never been for this team like a runner or somebody," Lindpere said. "I want to get the ball and I like to play with the ball and if this has been excuse that I’m not so aggressive attacking, so then I can stay sometimes 10 minutes out wide without getting the ball. That’s what I can’t change.
“I am one of the veterans of the team, and when you keep (getting) left out of the team and off the wings and the team is not winning then I ask myself, ‘Why? What have I done wrong?’ If I don’t get the explanation there, it’s sad.”
Lindpere started the team’s opening four games of the year. During the second home match against the Montreal Impact, he limped off of the pitch in the 68th minute after sustaining three separate knocks to the same area of his leg. In the three games since, Backe has given Mehdi Ballouchy the nod over the Estonian mainstay in his former left wing position.
In Lindpere’s mind, injuries had little to do with the decision.
“If the coach leaves you out after two great homes wins, just out of the squad, then I just need to keep my head up and do what I can do,” Lindpere said. “I am always there on the field doing everything for the team. It hasn’t been maybe the best start for me but, Kenny (Cooper) and (Thierry) Henry are scoring – who else has a wonderful start here? I think we are one team and we need to fix up all these things.
“My legs are bleeding, but I haven’t missed a single practice this year. In general, when I came here, I haven’t missed a single practice, so every practice I’ve been there and practicing with the team regularly. That tells a lot.”
With Ballouchy enjoying a decent run on the left wing, Lindpere suggested other areas of the pitch where he could contribute.
“I was hoping to play maybe in the center (midfield),” he said, “and suddenly, it was not even a story.”
Backe not only did not consider Lindpere as a central midfield option, he stated last Sunday after the team's loss to D.C. United that Lindpere had never played in central midfield for the Red Bulls and would only be a viable option in the middle of a five-man midfield.
“I played here 2010 the whole season in the center and I loved it," Lindpere said. "Last year, I was at the left wing. So for this team, I think we have players who play for the center and I need to fight for the wing place.
“I’m going on the field and giving everything that I can. If this is not enough, I can’t do anything. I am always there for the team, and I like to play with the ball. That’s my game. And if you don’t get the ball, how can you attack more?”
For now, the Estonian international can only press on to try and turn his fortunes around.
“I keep my head up, I’m practicing every day, I haven’t missed a single practice this year," Lindpere said. "I’m trying to be positive.
“I’m a team player, so I’m not worried. I can play in defense too if I have to,” Lindpere said with a laugh. “I’m kidding, but the thing is this; I like to play with the ball, and what’s more fun in the game then having the ball and playing with your own teammates and giving the good pass to your own teammate?
"Lately, if you see that after two passes we give the ball away and we chase the ball and just start running. It’s not my game."
With injuries ravaging the Red Bulls defense and midfield, and Rafa Marquez suspended for two more matches, New York is facing a stretch of games without a handful of starters. It will be a chance for new players to step up, and an opportunity for Lindpere to regain the form that once made him the Red Bulls most consistent and reliable player.
Lindpere isn't the only Red Bulls player struggling, and between underperforming starters and injured ones, New York is in jeopardy of another slide like the one they suffered last season in the middle of the year. For Lindpere's part, he believes the team can avoid that fate.
“I think we just need to play as a team," Lindpere said. "Play football, play regular football as we used to do. That’s very simple. We need to play, be available and pass the ball.”