A season that had the potential to be the best in New York Red Bulls history finished with the end of the Hans Backe era.

It looked as if things had finally broken the Red Bulls’ way. New York was tied on aggregate in its Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup against DC United heading back to Red Bull Arena. After Mother Nature forced a postponement, the Bulls came out and were the better team in the rescheduled match, forcing the issue against their long-time rivals, but unable to deliver the knockout blow.

Then, an opening in the 69th minute. After a great pass over the top, Kenny Cooper was bearing in on goal, one-on-one with DC United goalie Bill Hamid. Cooper fell over in the penalty box after being clipped by Hamid and the DC keeper was given a straight red card for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. All signs pointed to a Red Bulls win at this point.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

Cooper, who had been perfect in his MLS career from the spot, was denied twice — once by his team’s own encroachment into the box and once by substitute keeper Joe Willis, who guessed correctly and made sure the match stayed level. Whatever you think of the rule on encroachment, referee Mark Geiger made the correct decision. There should be no argument;  the rule was properly implemented.

It quickly went south after the penalty miss. For the second consecutive postseason, Rafa Marquez puzzlingly got himself sent off in the 75th minute for a bookable offense on Chris Pontius. It evened up the sides and it was only a matter of time before DC United took advantage. That’s when rookie Nick DeLeon wrote his name in DC United folklore.

Heartbreakingly, the DC midfielder was played onside by Connor Lade and put the finishing touch on the Red Bulls’ 2012 campaign. New York had one last chance with a free-kick opportunity in the dying minutes of the match, but — for whatever reason — Roy Miller took the kick instead of Thierry Henry. You can’t blame Miller for not hitting the target, but you have to ask why wasn’t Henry on the ball and taking the kick?  Whatever the reasoning, the final result was New York’s elimination and lots of questions heading into the offseason

Backe Out

It didn’t take long for the Red Bulls to decide the fate on Backe, as they announced Friday they would not be extending his contract Friday.

“We want to thank Hans for his work over the past three years and wish him the best of luck in the future,” said Global Sporting Director of Red Bull Soccer Gerard Houllier in the team’s official statement.

You could say that Backe had a mixed record as head coach. The Red Bulls qualified for the postseason in every season the Swede was in charge, but there was no delivery of any silverware, the hallmark for any successful coach. His first year was by far his most successful — New York finished in first in the Eastern Conference in 20120 — and it can be argued that the 52-year-old might be the best coach in franchise history.  When you consider the list of coaches in the franchise’s history include a World Cup winner (Carlos Alberto Parreira) and three former US National team coaches (Bora Milutinovic, Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena), that’s something to be said.

But the fact is the goal for the team was to win MLS Cup this season and Backe fell short. With new management under the direction of Houllier, it was inevitable that the powers that be were going to head in a new direction.

After a strong first season, Backe couldn’t figure out a way to straighten out the Red Bulls’ defense. The team was always susceptible to set pieces and couldn’t seem to replicate the first-season success Backe had.

According to Fox Soccer’s Ives Galarcep, sources close to him have said that the team is leaning towards hiring former Leeds United manager Gary McAllister as the next head coach. It would make a lot of sense, considering McAllister’s connection to Houllier. The former Scotland midfielder played under Houllier at Liverpool and was his assistant when the Frenchman was the manager at Aston Villa.

Whoever succeeds Backe will have many questions to answer heading into next season. Has Marquez played his last game as a Red Bull?  If Marquez goes, will the team try and go after another big name to fill the open designated player slot?

Whatever happens, the franchise has a long season to plan ahead.

2012 Season Awards

A first for me in the Bulls Run blog, season awards!

Player of the Year – Dax McCarty

The trade that sent Dwayne De Rosario to DC United last season was lambasted in some quarters — how on Earth can you trade a star player in MLS for a journeymen central midfielder?

A year later, the thought process is somewhat different. McCarty was one of the unsung stars of the Red Bulls this season and was one of the best players in MLS, bar none.  McCarty was the Red Bulls’ version of Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona’s pass machine, as he attempted and completed the most passes in the league this season, according to Opta. The ability to get the ball, keep the ball and distribute the ball seems so simple, yet it’s one of the most difficult things to do in soccer. Just 25 years old, McCarty has a bright future ahead of him.

Rookie of the Year – Connor Lade

It looked at first Ryan Meara would run away with this award, but because of a hip injury that sidelined the Red Bulls’ goalie, Lade takes the category.

Proving versatile as a left back, right back and as an auxiliary winger, Lade appeared 26 times this season and provided the team with energy down the flank.

Comeback Player of the Year – Kenny Cooper

The 28-year-old had a bounce-back season in 2012, tallying 18 times to lead the Red Bulls after a somewhat subpar season in Portland in 2011. He developed a good partnership with Henry and at times was simply unplayable.