By DAVE MARTINEZ
Perhaps there was a silver lining to the plethora of setbacks the New York Red Bulls suffered earlier this season after all.
An injury-plagued April and May, compounded by the suspension of Rafa Marquez and the loss of international players for the U.S. Open Cup hobbled New York. These issues forced Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe to juggle his roster and dig deep into his bench for answers.
Unlike years past during which similar situations sunk the club, leaders have emerged and role players have stepped up to the challenge. The tough times hardened the team’s resolve and revealed a solid and versatile bench, which has pushed New York to a first place tie with D.C. United in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand.
"You need guys to step up – whoever," captain Thierry Henry said. "Kenny (Cooper) did it for a little while, me and him for a little while, Dax (McCarty) was carrying the team at one point, now Connor (Lade) and Brandon (Barklage) are stepping up. You never know who will finish or start playing.
"It’s refreshing – seriously. That’s the type of thing I need as an old man – the young guys are pushing (us)."
Facing the loss of both starting centerbacks in front of a record crowd against the team’s oldest rival in D.C., New York was once again tested. Backe was forced to mix and match his options, putting together the combination of Heath Pearce and Rafa Marquez in central defense, flanked by Roy Miller and Barklage.
Despite conceding a goal 30 seconds into the match, the out-of-position players combined to anchor New York against an inspired D.C. attack.
"I would probably say that this is Rafa’s best performance since he arrived," Backe said following the game. "I would say because (Wilman) Conde and (Markus) Holgersson are out with injuries, so it was quite an easy decision to play Rafa at center back with Heath Pearce. You get two very good football players. You become more composed in the build-up, also with Dax dropping, the fullbacks pushing forward. It was a very easy decision."
Roleplayers Barklage and Lade and Jan Gunnar Solli were once again called upon to provide stability on the flank.
"They have very few games in MLS,” Backe said. "Connor Lade, coming from the academy, just improving all the time, and just from the beginning of the season and looking how comfortable he is in possession, much more right decision making instead of just going for crosses when we can have possession. And if he can adapt and keep going like this, he has a future in the league. Brandon, the same. I think he had three games in MLS earlier. He came here as a wide player, but we said the only chance is to see if he’s an option or a sub for Solli, and he took his chances.”
Backe's mixing and matching worked, as Barklage earned his first – and second – goals of his career against a team that discarded him a few short months ago.
"This is the date that I definitely circled on the calendar," Barklage said. "I knew I was just going to go out there and give it 110 percent and whatever happened, happened. Thankfully, I got the two goals against an ex-team. It feels unbelievable.”
While Lade and Barlage have been lauded for their performance, rookie Ryan Meara – whose solid performances overshadow his shallow professional resume – continues to be a major part of an unexpected core of role players that has solidified New York’s efforts this season.
"It’s funny because (Lade and Barklage) are two of my closer friends on the team," Meara noted. "We are some of the younger guys coming through and we are in the same situation. We are all enjoying it. We’re in first place – it’s great, those two guys have done great and they will be big players for the rest of the season."
Henry will be the first to tell talk about the importance of team play; he has been preaching it all season. Now, even in his absence — he returned from a calf strain as a substitute against D.C. — he is enjoying the fruits of his team’s labor.
“Guys are stepping up,” Henry said. “The boss put you on the field for something, because he believes in you. I see the attitude and the way Connor Lade is playing and Brandon, they don’t care if they play right back, left back, center forward; they play. They remind me of when I started to play. You play where they ask you to play because you want to play. Yes, it is refreshing.
“You win a championship as a team. You know guys, I love basketball. (The Miami Heat) would not have won the championship without Battier, Miller and Chalmers – and obviously, without Lebron and all those big guns. If those guys don’t step up, it would be more difficult."