Friday Gaffer: Genius Backe, playoff readiness

Red Bulls gaffer should be Coach of the Year; Henry ready to go?

HARRISON, N.J. – Ten words you didn’t expect to read this time last season: The Red Bulls are the best team in the East.

Admit it, last year’s club that finished bottom of the table had some real talent, but no one thought that head coach Hans Backe would be able to turn this thing around quite like this.

Thursday night’s 2-0 win over New England clinched the title and capped off a season that, no matter what happens in the playoffs, must be considered a success.

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Four things to take from Thursday’s win:

1. Turnaround Specialist – It might be one of the most remarkable turnarounds in league history, but the worst-to-first Red Bulls are proof that Backe is a genius. He has pieced together a side that works well together, is effective and where each individual knows his role. Even when a star like Juan Pablo Angel isn’t scoring or a Thierry Henry is on the bench, New York has players who can step up and step-in to fill the need.

“The key was the first six games, when we won five out of six and kept going,” Backe said. “It’s phenomenal to get 30 points more than last season. I think, normally, you can’t see any team in the world double their points in one season, it’s impossible to do that.”

If he isn’t coach of the year, the voting system for the award must be overhauled.

2. Muted Celebration – For a team that last year lost more than anyone else in the league, one would think that finishing first in the Eastern Conference would be met with a wild locker-room celebration. Instead, the players exchanged handshakes and hugs, with many choosing rather to watch the Phillies win in the MLB playoffs (see Albright, Chris).

“We need to finish it off well," Ángel said. "We don’t want to disappoint ourselves, because we’ve worked so hard. But we know we have a big challenge ahead. We have to correct the things that we need to correct, and because of the formula of the league, anything can happen. We have to be our best from the beginning.”

Every player spoke of the importance of the win and the title and then in the next sentence acknowledged that there is more work to be done. The focus is there for New York to push deep into the postseason.

3. No Pass for Hall – Rewind a few weeks ago and Backe was saying that he didn’t anticipate seeing right back Jeremy Hall on the field, following an August injury. Well, Thursday night saw Hall in the starting XI and going the full 90 minutes.

”Such a good feeling, a long road back,” Hall told MLSsoccer.com. “It was a great feeling to be back there and I’m thankful that coach saw that I was ready to play.”

Hall had a solid Thursday night and didn’t show too much rust after the layoff from injury. He’s a nice, versatile piece to have for the playoffs.

4. Henry for the Playoffs – The status of Henry for the MLS Cup Playoffs is still a bit muddled. Earlier this week, Backe told MLSsoccer.com that he was uncertain whether the Designated Player would be available for the postseason given the knee knock suffered a week earlier in training.

"The knock on his knee is too painful at the moment," Backe said. "They’ll try on the weekend to do some treatment and hopefully he can train on Monday. Fitness-wise, it's no problem, but the touch on the ball, the sharpness, that will take time.”

If the knee is healthy, Henry will play and expect to see Mehdi Ballouchy slide to the left wing.

Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012

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