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The Amazin' New York Red Bulls
by Paul Gardner, November 10th, 2008 7AM
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Now that's what I call an upset - safe to call it the biggest one in MLS playoff history, I think. Here comes Juan Carlos Osorio with the, let us say, undistinguished Red Bulls, a team rendered even weaker by drug suspensions and injuries, and they knock off the high-flying Houston Dynamo. I'm not going to say that they did it in style, that would hardly be accurate. But they did it in just about as convincing a way as possible -- by winning down there, in Houston, in the packed, hostile, stadium of the Dynamo. Winning? This was a wipe out -- you can't argue with a resounding 3-0 scoreline.

I'm quibbling about the matter of style, because this was playoff soccer, that strange, hybrid animal that takes over the MLS season at this time of the year. It evidently calls for something a bit different from regular-season play. A more intense mindset? A heightened concentration? A greater commitment? All of those things, no doubt. Fact is, you daren't lose a first-round playoff game. Coming back is very difficult -- as Chivas USA discovered on Saturday.

This incredible Red Bulls performance -- I'm still shaking my head at it -- was of course, conditioned by what happened in New York a week ago. That one finished 1-1, but it was a game that the Red Bulls could, with a pinch of luck, have won.

After the game, Osorio gave us the usual "proud of my team" stuff, and said that, for the return game, the Red Bulls would just keep doing the same, there were no special plans. Which made sense, because you don't change a winning, or a nearly-but-not-quite-winning, team.

But the big plus for New York was not the scoreline, because that 1-1 tie surely did feel almost like a loss. It was evidently at the confidence level that strength burgeoned. The team, anything but convincing during the regular season, had found out that it was pretty good at playoff soccer.

That is something for which Osorio can claim a lot of credit. He is not exactly experienced in that area, but he knew which players to put on the field. In selecting his team for that first game, he left out three of the players -- all Latinos -- whom he had brought in during the regular season. A decision that couldn't have been easy because it made his signings look decidedly shaky. Juan Pietravallo surely had to be dropped, as he was merely a red-card in waiting. Gabriel Cichero had not distinguished himself either. But Jorge Rojas had looked good as a playmaker and goalscorer. Osorio went without a playmaker -- or, possible with half a playmaker, in the shape of Dave van den Bergh. I would argue that Rojas would have been the better choice -- but Osorio has made things work.

It seemed that the Dynamo had learned little from its close-call in New York. That ought to have set off a whole bunch of alarms, because despite their ranking as current champions and red-hot favorites, they looked vulnerable throughout that game.

In Houston, the Dynamo did not look ready to deal with the demanding challenge of playing a reborn team -- a team that has suddenly discovered, and solidly believes, that it is a hell of a lot better than its previous results had shown.

The Dynamo is another team that prefers to use a half-playmaker -- Dwayne De Rosario. DeRo is a terrific player, but he has not been playing at all well, and nothing worked for him against New York. In fact, it was a nightmare of an afternoon for the Dynamo: nothing, but nothing, worked. One of those games that proved that sheer physical effort and high pressure and home field are not enough. Yes, the Dynamo couldhave had about six goals. They got none, thanks partially to the heroics of Danny Cepero and his defenders, thanks even more to whichever gods rule over soccer and apportion the vital asset of luck.

So the playoff version of the Red Bulls moves on. How to define their playoff style? To Osorio's credit, this is not, never has been -- indeed, given the rather shaky credentials of its defenders, never could be -- a defensive team. The temptation to play defensively in Houston must have been there -- but it was resisted. The Red Bulls started the game in offensive mode, and they were rewarded with the first, vital, goal -- a wonderful breakaway effort from Dane Richards. It combined speed and a powerful finish, and it struck right down the middle, right through the center of the Dynamo's defense. A dispiriting goal to concede.

After that, the Red Bulls had to play more defense than offense -- an enforced response to the rather inchoate pressure that the Dynamo poured on. But they still played their share of attacking soccer, still had a lot of ball possession -- until they delivered the coup de grace with a classic counterattack goal. Again, the speed of Dane Richards left the entire Dynamo defense in his wake as he sped down the right flank -- his final pass into the middle was a gem, and there was John Wolyniec to apply the perfect finishing touch -- not a wild swipe at an inviting ball, but a neat deflection that nudged the ball away from goalkeeper Pat Onstad and into the goal.

The other important thing to note about the style of Osorio's Red Bulls, playoff version, is that this is not a rough, overly-physical team. Luke Sassano and Sinisa Ubiparipovic, the two newcomers in midfield, might have been tempted to play that way, but so far they have not.

For my taste, this playoff style is not particularly stylish -- but it is obviously effective, the results speak for themselves. Yes, I would like more artistry, and on that note I would point to the Red Bulls' next opponent, Real Salt Lake -- another team that has suddenly excelled itself in the playoffs after a so-so regular season. But Real does have a genuine playmaker in Javier Morales. The man who scored a superb winning goal against Chivas USA. Proof that playoff soccer can accommodate a creative midfielder.

The matchup between Red Bulls and Real looks like the poor man's semifinal, but I think it will be more intriguing than the top-of-the-table bout between Chicago and Columbus.

Can the Red Bulls win it? After a 3-0 win in Houston, who would be in any doubt? Can the Red Bulls win MLS Cup? Don't be ridiculous, of course not. Of that I'm quite certain. As certain as I was that they could not beat Houston.



  1. commented on: November 10, 2008 at 10:51 a.m.
    I heard a rumor that MLS commissioner Dan Garber will do his best to prevent New York Red Bulls from winning over Real Salt Lake next weekend. Can you imagine the newspapers the following morning? "New York is the WESTern conference champions". The last time I checked, New England Revolution was the only team that is located east of New York.

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