1. The mini-makeover in New York: What spell has Hans Backe cast over these previously aimless players at Red Bull New York? Surely there's some kind of Swedish sorcery or some hocus pocus at work here. How else to explain what's going on with this side?
Two wins in two games so far, after Backe's bunch shut off the music on Seattle's house party over the weekend. Remember, teams didn't often come to Qwest and take all the points last year; it happened just twice in the Sounders' expansion season.
The big takeaway here is that New York is doing it with essentially the same personnel that stumbled and bumbled around so flaccidly a year ago, flirting with league marks for worst team ever.
The starters in Saturday's 1-0 win -- in the best match of the weekend, it should be said, a lively contest that had lots of pop right from launch -- included eight players from last year's team, plus one rookie.
(About that rookie, center back Tim Ream: Let's not start writing his Hall of Fame speech just yet, but that young man looks like a good one. He had a second consecutive strong outing, never ruffled, always looking like a fellow who's been there before.)
Of the new guys, left back Roy Miller appears to be a nice, solid addition. Then there's Joel Lindpere, who possesses skill and will and may just be the top offseason acquisition around the league. All signs point to his quickly establishing himself as one of the league's top two-way midfielders. (Will Estonia become the new, vogue hunting ground for MLS talent scouts? Officials around the league at this very moment are asking, "Yeah, uh, where's Estonia?") Not bad for a guy who landed at Red Bull Arena with little fanfare.
Useful as Lindpere appears, two new players plus a rookie draft pick is hardly a complete team makeover. So check the box next to "impressive," in the early reviews of how Backe has reinvented this team without starting over.
Oh, and score one for foreign managers, who have certainly fiddled and diddled with MLS sides before but rarely with such favorable results.
2. The secret Red Bull recipe: I know a guy who isn't anything special to look at. He's not all that smart, either. He can hold his own in a conversation, but Tom Brokaw he ain't. And yet this dude, the very embodiment of average, is always with beautiful women.
You know what he's got? Confidence. Easter baskets full it. And believe me, that means a lot.
I think that's what we have going at New York. By keeping things simple and not asking players to do things they can't, the individuals look like they have found comfort zones. Having one system and being highly organized helps, too.
Managers tell players all the time not to complicate things. Play simple. Pass and move. And yet, these same managers can sometimes be masters of over-complication. That's how it was under former manager Juan Carlos Osorio, a tyrant of tinkering who simply never knew how to leave well enough alone. I'm telling you, if that guy came across a nickel on the ground, he'd look for a way to reshape it into a dime.
Backe's team is playing a straight 4-4-2, with Lindpere and the best available candidate lining up side-by-side in the middle. Aside from one midfield change, he used the same lineup between the opening win over Chicago and Saturday's quality win at Qwest. (And much the same lineup in the Red Bull's final preseason friendly, too.)
It's a long season, and the losses and harder times are surely out there. Bouna Coundoul's erratic ways in goal will bite the Bulls at some point, as will Dane Richard's confounding propensity to make the wrong choice almost every time he's moving toward goal with the ball. Still, simplicity has created clarity, and clarity allows players to be who they are. It's the starting point for confidence, and the Red Bulls have it right now.
3. And one team without much confidence ...: Meanwhile, just down the coast, D.C. United is a side that seems to have talent, but may be running desperately low on its rations of confidence.
Can you blame them?
United looked like a side on a mission for a half against visiting New England on Saturday. New signing Juan Pena, a classy Bolivian center back, had things under control in the back. Salvadorian winger Cristian Castillo's home debut looked like a crowd-pleaser as he troubled the Revs along the left. Possession for New England was scant.
But the inability to turn all the possession into a lead seemed to eat away at United. As the home team emerged after intermission, still in a scoreless dogfight, the men of RFK apparently left their confidence back in the locker room. After all, they probably didn't have much to start with, not after finishing on the business end of that 4-0 ambush at Kansas City the week before.
Revs manager Steve Nicol, wily ol' dog that he is, had the perfect plan for his understrength side. The Revs employed low pressure and absorbed United's possession early, limiting the truly dangerous chances. After the break they started pressing a little higher, hunting for the vulnerable moment. It worked to perfection as Kenny Mansally struck for two, leaving United winless after two and surely looking for answers.
"I thought we moved the ball well, I thought we created chances," United coach Curt Onalfo said. "Unfortunately you've got to finish those chances, and we gave up a real unfortunate goal toward the end of the game, and I think that shell shocked us a little bit."
He also tried to explain the seemingly inexplicable: how a team that's yet to score a goal could forget to insert the goal-scorer it brought in during the offseason.
We've heard the word on heralded Australian forward Danny Allsopp, who has supposedly been sharp as a tack in training. Onalfo said the plan was to insert Allsopp at some point Saturday. But an injury here, some tired legs there and, well, changes needed to be made elsewhere. So no Allsopp for a team that managed just three shots on goal? That's a head-scratcher.
Instead, Jaime Moreno went the full 90, never looking particularly spry. And young Chris Pontius, well, he'll have better nights. So will Allsopp, unless there's another reason next week that he can't get on the field for a team that's yet to score.
4. Sluggish in Colorado: You probably think that headline ("Sluggish in Colorado") is about the attendance. True, the Rapids' paltry draw of 11,641 on opening day will temporarily relieve pressure on FC Dallas as the league laggard in attendance. But that's not where I'm going with this.
Rapids forward Conor Casey is doing himself no favors.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley needs a healthy, fit, in-form striker. He'd love to have one all full of TNT and ready to explode at the World Cup. But he'd take one carrying a couple of firecrackers in his pocket, set to make a bit of a loud pop, at least. Right now Bradley looks like the school teacher who has just asked his class a real toughie. He points to one student after another, "Do you have the answer? No. Well, how about you? Or you? Anybody? Anybody?"
Casey did connect on a penalty kick, and maybe that will get him going. But that's about all Colorado manager Gary Smith has gotten from Casey over two matches. (Meanwhile, did you see Omar Cummings' strike? File that one under "Oh, mamma!")
It almost looks as if Casey is playing hurt at the moment -- or perhaps afraid to get hurt. It does happen, where performers on the World Cup bubble start thinking too much about what's potentially at stake. The trouble for Casey is this: He doesn't have that luxury. He is hardly a lock for a spot on Bradley's final 23; he still needs to show more.
On the other hand, Casey is a fellow who depends on service. Colin Clark, returning from offseason surgery, looked better in Week 2 than in his previous outing. But he's still not carrying the pep in his step he had in 2009 before a serious knee injury. And Mehdi Ballouchy on the right continues to be too tentative on the attack, way too satisfied with the safe option. The way Colorado is playing, with two defensive midfielders, the flank midfielders must supply the attacking mustard. It will be interesting to see what (just-signed) vet Claudio Lopez will bring once he gets on the field.
It will be interesting to see if he can brush some of the "dull" off Casey's kit. Bradley will be interested, too.
5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Bouna Coundoul (Red Bull); Defenders: Cory Gibbs (New England), Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy), Tim Ream (Red Bull New York), Juan Pena (D.C. United); Midfielders: Joel Lindpere (Red Bull New York), Dema Kovalenko (L.A. Galaxy), Patrick Nyarko (Chicago); Forwards: Collins John (Chicago), Edson Buddle (L.A. Galaxy), Kenny Mansally (New England).