HARRISON, N.J. (AP) — Hans Backe insisted the turnaround was unimaginable.

Not quite. After stinking up Major League Soccer last year, the New York Red Bulls clinched the Eastern Conference title with a 2-0 victory Thursday night on goals by Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Backe, hired as the Red Bulls coach after the 2009 debacle. “Normally, we don’t see any team in the world double its points from one year to the next. It’s just impossible.”

Playing without star forward Thierry Henry, who missed his second straight game because of an injured right knee, the Red Bulls improved to 15-9-6, up from a 5-19-6 record last year.

“The mentality was different then,” defender Carlos Mendes said. “This year, we had a winning mentality. We made up our minds. Now we’re starting from scratch.”

The 10-win increase tied the 2000 MetroStars — the team’s previous name — for the biggest one-season improvement in Major League Soccer history.

Even before adding Henry and Mexican national team captain Rafael Marquez in midseason from Barcelona, the Red Bulls signed Lindpere last winter to help revive the team as it prepared to open $200 million Red Bull Arena. Players around the newcomers also got better.

“I’m the same guy,” Richards said. “I’m just trying to improve each game.”

New York opens the playoffs against San Jose, Colorado or Seattle next week and hosts the second leg of the home-and-home, total-goals series on Nov. 4. Backe said Henry might resume training on Monday.

“We don’t want to disappoint ourselves,” forward Juan Pablo Angel said. “We’ve got to be at our best from the beginning.”

New England finished at 9-16-5 and missed the playoffs. The Revolution had won their previous two games.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys who worked hard, but it just wasn’t good enough,” midfielder Shalrie Joseph said. “It’s encouraging to look forward to the future. We’re keeping everybody, and we’re just a couple of players away from being a good team.”

Angel, the Colombian forward likely playing his final regular-season game for the Red Bulls, passed from the midfield to the speedy Richards, who scored his fifth goal of the season in the 17th minute. It was the fourth assist of the season for Angel, a former Aston Villa player who turns 35 on Sunday and said he is likely to leave the Red Bulls after four seasons.

Lindpere, a member of Estonia’s national team, scored his third goal of the season two minutes into second-half stoppage time.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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