New York head coach Hans Backe says Thierry Henry meant no harm to FC Dallas' Kevin Hartman during their incident last week.
Getty Images

SmorgasBorg: Backe needs to aim higher

CARSON, Calif. – His team is widely recognized as one of the best in 2010. It has three Designated Players, a Rookie of the Year candidate, a brand new soccer stadium and it sits three points away from the conference lead.

But somehow all that does not give New York Red Bulls manager Hans Backe a reason to dream.

“I think I’m too pessimistic,” Backe told on Thursday. “Because I’m thinking all the time that Kansas [City Wizards] can reach us.”

The first-year coach has downplayed expectations for New York from the very start. He made it clear early on that his goal in 2010 was to reach the postseason.

But now that RBNY are just five matches away from the finish line, shouldn't Backe be dreaming of catching Columbus three points ahead at the top of the East rather than worrying about the Wizards, who are eight points below?

Sure, the Red Bulls have yet to pick up a point against one of the Big Three (Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake and Columbus). But this is a New York team that has spent more than $200 million to build a brand new stadium and brought in two multimillion-dollar players.

They have already reached the playoff threshold of 41 points. At this point, there is nothing to lose by setting the bar high and establishing an ambitious culture at your club from year one.

SEE: Latest MLS standings

“They tell us we can win the Eastern Conference,” Backe said. “I’m happy to be in second place with a chance to reach the playoffs in our first year.”

There is not a single New York sports team that would ever be content to utter the words, “I am happy to be in second place.” That is just not a New York phrase.

“We’re doing well, but we have only played together six weeks with this team and perhaps it’s not realistic to compete with the best ones so soon,” Backe said in reference to the midseason acquisitions of Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez.

“This is still a long-term process and expectations get higher and higher when you get results and you’re closer to the playoffs. I will take it a little bit calmer.”

Taking it calmer must mean refuting any talk of the Supporters' Shield, MLS Cup and an Eastern Conference title. Backe has already made it clear that he will not take any risks with Henry’s right knee for the remainder of the regular season. His aim is to have his squad ready for the playoffs.

Backe has been a refreshing addition to the league coaching ranks, and not just for his on-field success. He is straightforward and candid, but he needs to remember he is leading a New York team.

[inline_node:316257]His counterpart on Friday, Bruce Arena of the Los Angeles Galaxy, similarly speaks about getting his team ready for the postseason. Arena acknowledges that the Galaxy and Red Bulls are both teams a “little bit in transition.” Nonetheless, his goals are set decidedly higher.

“Our goal is to win the Supporters' Shield and also to have home field advantage in the playoffs,” Arena said. No bones about it.

Sure, Márquez and Henry will perform at a higher level in 2011 with a full preseason in their legs. We’ve heard that line several times. But who knows anything about next year?

If the Red Bulls want to share the league spotlight with the Galaxy beginning this year, they will need to match LA not only on the field, but also in their way of thinking as well.

It’s not enough to bring in the big players to be a winner, but it requires believing it.

Call it a New York state of mind.