Juan Pablo Angel is, without question, one of the top offensiver players to ever suit up for a MLS side. He is the bar by which all other mid-career foreign imports will be judged. In parts of four seasons, he has scored 49 goals and assisted on 11 others for a PP90 of 1.43, a mark that is unmatched during his time in the league.
The Colombian import is having another solid season, scoring four goals while posting a PP90 of 1.29 in the New York Red Bulls' first seven games.
Stopping Angel will certainly be Job 1 for the Sounders when they make their first-ever visit to Red Bull Arena on Saturday.
Fortunately for the Sounders, Angel's numbers, like his team's, may be a bit deceiving.
Although the Angel is among the league scoring leaders and the Red Bulls (5-2-0, 15 points) are leading the Eastern Conference, it would be a stretch to call either of their performances consistent.
Of Angel's four goals, two have come from the penalty spot (and he has actually been stopped from there once, as well). That alone deserves an asterisk, but it's not even that he's drawing the penalties. On the first, it was Sinisa Ubiparapovic drawing the penalty. On the second, which Angel missed, it was Mac Kanji getting fouled. On the third, it was a handball in the penalty area that resulted in the opportunity.
If not for the superb passing of Joel Lindpere, those two strikes may very well be the only two goals for Angel this season. The Estonian import has assisted on both of Angel's other goals, while also scoring one of his own. Lindpere's play, in fact, probably deserves much of the credit for the Red Bulls' turnaround season which has already seen them equal their win total of a year ago. He's had a hand in five of the Red Bulls' eight goals -- aside from the three goals he scored or assisted on, it was his corner that led to Kanji's goal against Seattle and it was his crossing pass into the box that created the penalty kick goal against Philadelphia.
Lindpere was one of nine Red Bulls who entered the season with zero MLS experience. He was also one of 13 players that were new to the team, and one of four who were brought over from Scandinavian clubs along with coach Hans Backe.
Salou Ibrahim, another Scandinavian league import, has been the other offensive standout of this team, scoring two goals.
It should come as little surprise, then, that the club has not always looked like a cohesive unit.
Only four of their goals have come during the run of play -- two goals were off penalties, one was off a free kick and the other was off a corner.
The Red Bulls rank at the bottom of MLS in terms of shot differential (-24) and shots-on-goal differential (-17), and are second-to-last in corner kick differential (-12). Taken alone, those statistics don't necessarily mean much. Looked at as a whole, it would appear that the Red Bulls are simply allowing far more scoring opportunities than they are creating.
Defensively, goalkeeper Bouna Condoul has alternated between brilliant and maddening, traits that seem to fit this team perfectly. One minute, he's making a diving stop, the next he practically knocks the ball into his own goal (against Chivas USA) or allows a ball to seemingly pass right through him (against San Jose).
The backline in front of him as been relatively consistent in terms of playing time -- Mike Petke, Tim Ream and Roy Miller have each started all seven games -- but have hardly showcased any real shutdown ability. Against Dallas, for instance, shots came early and often and strikers were repeatedly able to get behind the defense. In the San Jose match, Bobby Convey, Ryan Johnson and Joey Gjersten repeatedly ran past and around the New York backline, something that can't simply be written off because the Red Bulls were playing a man down for much of the match. It's not hard to imagine Steve Zakuani, Freddie Ljungberg and whoever else Sigi Schmid rolls out there finding similar success.
Considering where this team has come from, no wins can be overlooked. Still, it should be pointed out that the Red Bulls have essentially climbed to first place on the backs of struggling teams. The Sounders and FC Dallas qualify as the Red Bulls' best wins this season, and those two teams have a combined four wins.
The other three victories have come against Chicago (2-3-2, 8 points), DC United (1-6-0, 3 points) and Philadelphia (1-5-0, 3 points).
Chivas USA (3-4-1, 10 points) beat the Red Bulls 2-0, and they are hardly a powerhouse. The Red Bulls are also coming off a 4-0 pasting at the hands of San Jose (4-2-0, 12 points), a team that little was expected of at the start of the season.
None of this is meant to imply the Red Bulls are a bad team.
The fact remains that they are perfect at home (3-0-0), and are as dangerous as any, especially on set pieces.
As overmatched as the defense looked against San Jose, the Red Bulls were able to create several scoring chances and were very much in the game until San Jose scored its second goal in the 54th minute. Ibrahim narrowly missed a header on a corner kick, Angel had a couple good looks and midfielder Dane Richards showcased some serious speed with runs through the middle of the field.
The Sounders have now gone four games without a victory, despite being on the road against a first-place team, this is a winnable game. It is getting to the point where the Sounders need a win as much for their collective psyche as they do for their placement in the standings.