By DAVE MARTINEZ
Slowly, the New York Red Bulls are addressing their team issues, but one remains glaring.
A healthy forward corps has helped drive the team to a league-leading 15 goals. The midfield has contributed greatly in creating chances, putting New York in solid command for team assists league wide with 20, nearly doubling the total of their closest rivals (12). Even the defense, which was a major worry in the onset of the season, has settled into a reliable four man front, holding their opponents to three goals in their last four games.
While all of those positives are pushing the team forward, the goalkeeping situation has become a growing concern. One need only look back to the team’s victory against Toronto FC to understand why.
Holding on to a fragile 1-0 lead late in the second half, starting goalkeeper Luis Robles did the inexplicable. A 40-yard set piece situation forced Toronto FC to launch the ball into the Red Bulls area. It was soccer’s version of a Hail Mary; get it into the danger zone and hope for the best.
Robles made sure that attempt had more than a prayer’s chance for completion.
Almost predetermined in his actions, the 28-year-old keeper rushed towards the edge of the area in an ill-advised attempt to punch the ball out of danger. The problem is there was no danger to be had. He nearly steamrolled Jonny Steele – who had the best track on the ball – keeping the play alive and giving Jonathan Osorio ample time to take advantage of the confusion. With Robles lingering in no-man’s land in the penalty area, Osorio perfectly placed his shot into the open net to give TFC life.
Had it not been for some late-game magic from Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry, that moment would have come to define the match.
It has been a difficult season for Robles. Despite the team’s recent successes, it has been Robles’ blunders which are best recalled rather than his stronger individual performances. His failure to properly handle and control shots in the area against Portland in the home opener encouraged the home side to fire at will. Soon enough, those rebounds became chances and the Timbers erased New York’s 3-1 advantage by the end of the 90 minutes.
More recently, Robles failed to step up on a ball in his five yard area, allowing Daniel Paladini all the room he needed to beat the keeper’s catching attempt. His header turned the tides on the visiting Red Bulls and gave Chicago all the momentum they needed en route to a 3-1 victory.
Whether contending with a make-shift back-line or fighting his own personal decision-making problems, the young keeper has failed to garner confidence from his team or it’s coaching staff. His 68% save percentage ranks him in the lower half of all MLS starting goalkeepers. Though he has played two more matches than his nearest competition, Robles is currently tied with D.C. United’s Bill Hamid for most goals conceded with 13. For comparison sake, Chivas USA’s Dan Kennedy has played two less games but faced 48 shots to Robles’ 41, and still has given up all of 11 goals. His performances have put him in the bottom eight amongst current starting keepers with an unenviable 1.30 GAA.
Robles’ shaky play forced the club to reach into the free agent market to pull up the nearly 39-year-old Kevin Hartman to shore up their lines. Nearly a month after his signing, Hartman continues to contend with fitness issues. Meanwhile, last season’s goalkeeping hero Ryan Meara is near game form, but still has not faced live action. His opportunity could have come this weekend against Toronto in reserve league action, but the match was cancelled.
That leaves the onus on Luis Robles for at least another few weeks.
The Red Bulls are easing into a kind stretch of matches that will see them play three out of four games at home prior to the big June international break. If Robles hopes to cement his spot with the team, the next five weeks will be crucial for him. If he continues to struggle the way he has in recent weeks, the return to full health of Meara and Hartman could leave Robles buried on the bench, if not on the waiver wire.