BABY BULLS STEP UP TO THE CHALLENGE

Yes, Red Bulls fans, it is true. Despite a litany of injuries to key players, your team is sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference table, as they look to win their fifth straight match Saturday in Montreal (7:00 p.m. on MSG).

With veterans such as Thierry Henry and Teemu Tainio sidelined due to injury, it has been the unheralded young Red Bulls such as Ryan Meara, Connor Lade,Tyler Ruthven and Dax McCarty who have all stepped up and impressed during their four-match unbeaten run.

Since his MLS debut on Opening Day against FC Dallas, Meara has been extremely impressive and arguably the front runner for MLS Rookie of the Year. The Fordham grad has stabilized the Red Bulls’ goalkeeping position — an area of weakness since the MetroStars days — and continues to display a mature poise and confidence in between the sticks. His game-saving stop on Philadelphia’s Lionard Pajoy in last week’s 3-2 win at the death preserved all three points for New York (fast forward to 1:39 to watch it).

Meanwhile, Meara’s defensive chums have begun to find some solidly in the past few weeks. Whether it was by accident or by design, the makeshift backline has been much more reliable than it has in previous weeks.

Pressed into service due to injuries in defense, center back Tyler Ruthven and left back Connor Lade have impressed in their time on the pitch. With Stephen Keel out due to injury, Rafa Marquez’ status in limbo and Wilman Conde injured and facing legal trouble, the young American defenders have stepped in admirably in the past four weeks.

Being newcomers, the precocious pair will struggle and make mistakes — you can make the case that Ruthven was at fault for the Union’s opening goal Saturday — but both of their futures look to be very bright.

It may give Hans Backe a selection headache in the future, especially with the acquisition of Heath Pearce from Chivas USA for Juan Agudelo. But, as the saying goes, it’s a good problem to have.

“We have a real deep squad,” Meara told our Tina Cervasio Thursday at Red Bulls practice. “Some of these guys coming in have got great experience and are more confident. It’s a long season and we’re going to need everyone. I think we can be confident that who[m]ever steps in will get the job done.”

Dax Marks the Spot

The position of defensive midfielder is a rather unglamorous one. You don’t get many opportunities to score goals and you have to do the dirty work in order for the team to succeed. There’s nothing too exciting about playing a simple, accurate pass in your own half or making a tackle in the midfield.

Still, every team in world soccer needs a competent defensive midfielder to break up the opposing team’s play and be the starting point to begin attacks going other way. Gone are the days of the box-to-box midfielder like a Steven Gerrard; the likes of Claude Makelele, Gennaro Gattuso and Sergio Busquets have redefined the position in a way where shielding the back four is a job in itself.

It was thought that Marquez could excel in that role for the Red Bulls, but due to injury, suspension and lack of form, the position has been seized by Dax McCarty who has — pardon the pun — taken the bull by the horns.

McCarty is by no means an intimidating physical force, but what he lacks in physicality he makes up for in excellent positional sense. His ability to get the ball and keep it moving forward is something that shouldn’t be overlooked during the Red Bulls’ recent run. With Tainio out for an extended period time due to a knee injury, McCarty will be called upon to the main man to boss the midfield.

Juan and Done

Juan Agudelo’s time as a New York Red Bull has officially expired.

A promising player, the 19-year-old striker was shipped to Chivas USA for veteran defender and US international Heath Pearce Thursday.

“Heath is a very talented and versatile defender who will bring immediate experience to our defense. We have been long-time fans of his game and think that he will be an important player in our squad. In addition, we obtained a significant amount of financial flexibility moving forward with this trade. It was a deal we could not turn down,” said general manager Erik Soler in a press release.

While Pearce brings experience and reassurance for a youthful backline, the disappointment of seeing a homegrown Red Bull like Agudelo being traded for a fan is understandable. Agudelo displayed mouthwatering moments of magic such as this goal last season against DC United.

But despite the talent, Agudelo just didn’t have a place on a team going forward. Henry is expected to be back in the Red Bulls’ starting lineup and the US’s youngest ever goalscorer would have to settle for a place on the bench. Agudelo didn’t develop enough chemistry with Henry, and, with Kenny Cooper’s emergence, it made Agudelo expendable. Agudelo needs match time and he wasn’t going to get it in New York. According to Soler, it was the US international who requested the trade.

“It is important to say that initiative for this trade was not in our hands,” Soler said to Goal.com’s Alex Labidou Thursday. “I’ve had conversations with Juan for a long time about his future and development. It had become that he felt his development as a player would be better if he played somewhere else.”

This move can only help Agudelo’s career, and, with his ambitions to play in Europe, don’t be surprised if Agudelo’s time out with Chivas ends abruptly with a transfer to a European club. From a US National Team stand point, Agudelo gets to play and that can only be good for the USA heading into World Cup qualifying.

For the Red Bulls, it’s another experienced defender added to a group of promising, but still raw defenders such as Lade and Ruthven. Pearce can play left back and center back, which could allow Soler to make another move in the future. The financial implications mean that New York might be gearing up for another big summer purchase — the Red Bulls still have a designated player slot open — which has been speculated to be anyone from AC Milan’s Alessandro Nesta to Tottenham’s Emmanuel Adebayour.