Greg Lalas
Monday August 31st, 2009

NEW YORK -- Stop the presses! The New York Red Bulls have won two games in a row. The last time they won consecutive games was in last season's playoffs, when they thumped Houston in the second leg of the quarterfinals and then snuck past Real Salt Lake in the semis to reach their first MLS Cup final.

Those were the halcyon days. The days when MLS' Big Apple laughingstock -- I mean, flagship -- was thrilling its long-suffering fans with dreams of trophies and dynasties.

The days when Juan Pablo Ángel was as deadly around the goal as the legendary torero Juan Belmonte was around an ornery bull, when goalkeeper Danny Cepero recalled a young Shep Messing (minus the mustache and the dip), and when Juan Carlos Osorio's note-taking shtick seemed like more than the antics of a madman.

Those days are gone. Long gone. But this is New York, where optimism rides the subway with the striving masses every day. New York is a city practically defined by continual rebirth. A city that loves a turnaround as much as it does a Grimaldi's pizza.

Even the most bullish New Yorker can't deny that this season has been squarely in the red. For all intents and purposes, the Red Bulls slumped out of the playoff chase by mid-June. Until the recent two-game "streak," the Red Bulls had gone 2-16-4. Those are Derby County numbers. Or L.A. Clippers numbers. As close to Detroit Lions numbers as a soccer team can realistically get.

And as with the Clippers and Lions, everyone soon laid down. The players stopped fighting. They gave up on Osorio. The diehard fans, who had started the season believing the momentum of last year's MLS Cup final appearance was going to finally bring the club its first piece of glimmering silverware this year, began to stay in the parking lot tailgating rather than go into Giants Stadium to watch the on-field farce.

The bottom finally fell out when the Red Bulls were gored by Trinidadian minnows W Connection in the CONCACAF Champions League. Osorio's side didn't just lose the series, it fell 2-1 in the decisive home leg. This would be like Aston Villa losing to Rapid Vienna. Oh, wait ...

The timing of New York's disaster couldn't have been worse, of course. Not with a shiny, near-$200 million stadium due to open next season. Red Bull Arena (The Bull Ring? The Bullpen?) looks set to be one of the coolest stadiums in the country, not just the coolest soccer stadium. But if the Red Bulls are in shambles, who in his right mind is going to go to lovely Harrison, N.J., to enjoy its splendor?

The Red Bulls need desperately to build some goodwill. Not just with the diehards in the Empire Supporters Club, but with everyone: the suburban coaches who refuse to take their young charges to watch bad soccer, the downtown sophisticates who would just as soon go to Iowa as to New Jersey on a Saturday night, the MLS fans in other cities who see the Red Bulls as castrated and a near-certain three points.

None of these constituents is going to support a team that is, for lack of a better way to put it, utter crap.

Which brings us back to the current winning streak. As the cliché goes, the Red Bulls players have nothing to lose. But that's not really true, is it? They are playing for their jobs, which seems fitting considering the economic times we're in.

Interim coach Richie Williams is trying to prove that he can be the man in charge permanently, and so far he's doing well. He's a serious, thoughtful, competitive man who has the lads fighting for each other, the kind of guy you want on your side when the chips are down.

And even though they are mathematically out of the playoffs, the Red Bulls can still affect this season in a big way. When all is lost, the fun is playing spoiler, and the Red Bulls are set up to play that role. They have six games left, four of which are against teams in the thick of the playoff chase: New England, Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC.

Two weeks ago, this quartet figured three points were in the bag for its respective game against New York. Now, nothing is certain. How many of those teams will lose to the Red Bulls and look back at the game as the pivotal moment of failure?

The conventional wisdom is that the Red Bulls will be broken up after this season. A big-name designated player will be brought in -- Thierry Henry? Andriy Shevchenko? -- and, no matter how well Williams does down the stretch, a marquee coach will be hired.

But what if they were not just to break up the team, but decimate it? What if the owners, Red Bull, were to rebrand the entire franchise? There will never be a better time to start over. Ever since Red Bull stampeded into town, it has struggled to win the hearts and minds of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. This season has delivered the death blow. There's nothing to lose now. Just ask the players.

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