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The Merlin of the Meadowlands
by Paul Gardner, November 17th, 2008 7AM



So the Amazins did it again. Don't ask me how, their last two games have been played as though the players are enchanted, as though they've created a magic spell around their goalmouth, a spell with the power to repel the ball, to make sure it just will not go into the goal.

Commissioner Don Garber -- who evidently believes that he alone stands between a squeaky-clean MLS and a vast wave of drug usage -- should now investigate whether mystical spell-casting might not also come under the heading of doping.

The chief culprit here, the spell-caster supreme, the Merlin of the Meadowlands, has to be coach Juan Carlos Osorio. What is he telling this bunch of perennial underachievers, what cunning, even sinister, words can he be pouring into their ears that have so affected their performances, so bolstered their psyches, so re-engineered their very metabolisms, that they look like different players?

But I fear the prosaic list of banned substances that Garber relies on will not have an answer to this one. Osorio's spell has evidently gotten deep into his players, far deeper than I realized last time I wrote about them -- actually only a few days ago, right after they had hissed a silent Zap! and reduced the Houston Dynamo to so much dust and ashes.

That win over Houston was, of course, ridiculous. To get three unanswered goals against the MLS champions -- well, really! There was something of the paranormal at work there. But the new miracle, the bearding of Real Salt Lake in their lovely new stadium, has a different look to it. In the Houston game, the Red Bulls looked like a team destined to win whatever they did. They almost made it look easy.

But Saturday's effort in Salt Lake City had more reality to it. This was a struggle. Players without -- for the most part anyway -- the help of supernatural powers showing that they didn't need it any more, that they knew they were better than Real, that they were damn well going to win this game. There were -- there would have to be, wouldn't there? -- the usual setbacks. Andrew Boyens was out with a broken arm, then Sinisa Ubiparipovic had to be subbed off after only 22 minutes. Pooh. Where the traditional Red Bulls and the earlier MetroStars would have caved in when faced by relentless adversity, these guys just shrugged it off.

But they had to sweat for this one. There was no better symbol of the Bulls' effort than Chris Leitch, a standard player who had played, in his quiet way, the game of his life. As the game went into its final moments, Leitch was suffering the agonies of cramp, but his face showed something different, a soft, knowing smile, a winning smile in every sense.

Alongside him, Diego Jimenez has been the defensive rock of the playoffs, barely putting a foot wrong. Kevin Goldthwaite and Carlos Mendes made their share of errors, but they were covered at once -- more of Osorio's magic, I suppose, he's been telling us about how his teams are known for their defense.

Then there were ... but I'm singling out names and I didn't mean to do that. All have played their part. All have kept the Red Bull fans on the edges of their seats, because Saturday's game was played on a knife edge throughout. One goal in soccer is never enough -- not until the final whistle -- and the Bulls teased us all, coming so close to giving up the tying goal, and coming even closer to scoring a decisive second.

It was pretty good soccer, too, exciting and dramatic. Incredibly, the whole game featured only 13 fouls. The comments of the Real players after the game echoed those of the Dynamo, filled with frustration, but somehow acknowledging that it wasn't to be for them (I'll have to except Nat Borcher's silly remark that the Bulls scored "a cheap goal"). A mystified Kyle Beckerman was nicely philosophical: "Maybe it's just soccer ... or voodoo." There was a general feeling that the Bulls had destiny on their side.

And maybe they do. Hang on a moment -- there is one more player I do want to single out. Juan Pablo Angel. His influence is no doubt impressive -- he's a very impressive guy -- but the perverse thing is that he hasn't been outstanding on the field in the last two games -- indeed he's been pretty quiet after a brilliant goal in the first game against Houston. That will no doubt be causing some concern to Sigi Schmid and the Columbus Crew for whom the prospect of a sudden awakening of the dormant Angel cannot be a comforting prospect.

For the rest, we'll just have to see how much longer this amazin' Osorio spell can hold up. It was still very much there against RSL, in its goalmouth manifestation.

Voodoo or not, there is a magical feel to the Red Bulls at the moment. And that can only mean good news for Garber and the rest of the MLS brass, who must have been dismayed when the Chicago Fire -- with their star attraction Cuauhtemoc Blanco -- failed to make the final. But, we've suffered through three years of the tedium generated by Steve Nicol's functional New England Revs, and now a final featuring something rather different looms: The unpredictability, maybe even the wizardry, of Osorio's magical, Amazin' Red Bulls.

And let's not forget that the Crew was the second highest-scoring MLS team during the regular season, averaging 1.67 goals a game. Whichever way it goes, it should be fun -- exactly the quality that has been deplorably missing in recent finals.


  1. commented on: November 17, 2008 at 12:35 p.m.
    Between Alexi Lalas’s Gods of soccer who will insure that Columbus gets what they deserve and Paul Gardner’s destiny that will make New York Red Bulls a champion, lays the fate of the MLS cup trophy. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable of either side of the argument. But I remember once I believed that destiny was on the side of Zidane and the French team in the world cup 2006. I kept that faith until the infamous headbutt. Seeing Zidane walking off the field with head down taught me a lesson. The lesson was obvious to me. Destiny can change course too. Destiny could only happen if you follow its rules. There are always lessons in Soccer. In the case of the Red Bulls, I see a team that I have not seen in New York, except for a short period during the preparation for the world cup 1998. That was the period when there were no (superstars) on the team. The (Superstars) were all busy trying to win the world cup with the national team. I was praying then that those stars will never return to the team. The team was doing much better without them. After their return, the team went downhill. With the exception of a few, the history of (superstars) in the New York teams is full of snobs who think they are above the ream. I believe Angel and Van Den Berg are examples of a different bread of stars that are humble and work with the team. Everyone now understands that it’s a team sport. Work hard and work with the team and don’t forget to follow the other rules of destiny. Remember that destiny can and will change course if needed.

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