By Paul Gardner
When you consider the dozens of things that could go wrong with the opening night of a brand new stadium -- I mean, I can think of plenty, starting with me not being able to claim my accreditation (didn’t happen, all was smooth efficiency) -- then surely the opening of Red Bull Arena proceeded without a hitch.
A beautiful spring evening, for a start -- and that might even represent a change in the franchise’s fortunes, for it has been cursed for 12 years with lousy weather almost every time it stages a special event.
The game itself -- I'm not sure whether that or the stadium was the main attraction -- could hardly have turned out better for Red Bull fans. Leading 3-0 at halftime against world-famous Santos is a scoreline not to be sniffed at -- even when some pretty obvious cautions are taken into consideration.
Santos for a start -- I’d like to report that they put up stout opposition, but they didn’t. This was a rather torpid display from them -- too many tackles not made, too many sprints not made, not enough commitment. The Red Bulls took advantage of all that sub-par activity and romped gleefully into an all-out attacking game that was rewarded with three pretty good goals.
Of Coach Hans Backe’s new players, who did well? Midfielder Joel Lindpere lived up to Backe’s description of him as a super-active player -- he was certainly that, and he took his goal superbly -- latching quickly on to the rebound as his free kick came back sharply off the Santos wall, and slamming it into the net from 18 yards out. Outside back Roy Miller played neatly and got off a few nice crosses. I expected nothing from Carl Robinson, and he didn’t disappoint me, producing nothing but a corner-kick assist on the second goal. That goal, it seems, was a set play that had been “worked on” in training. A deep corner kick headed forward by rookie Tim Ream up to Mike Petke near the six-yard line who turned it in.
Ream’s confident performance at center back -- he played the full 90 minutes -- was a definite plus, for central defense has been one of the Bulls’ weak spots for some seasons.
Two minutes after Petke’s goal, Dane Richards raced forward to take a pass from Macoumba Kandji at the corner of the penalty area and hit a violent first-time shot that flew across Santos goalie Fabio Costa and into the far side of the net.
Inevitably, the Red Bulls relaxed in the second half, and then the substitutions started -- for both teams. As it happens, Santos won the rather tame second half 1-0, but they were already a well-beaten team after 45 minutes.
Despite those three goals, I’d say the biggest question mark for coach Backe hangs over his offense. Neither of the forwards, Kandji and Ibrahim Salou (a Ghanaian-born trialist) -- scored; indeed their only involvement in the three goals was Kandji’s assist on the third.
Otherwise the goals came from midfielders Lindpere and Richards, and that combination of the two center backs, Ream and Petke. Backe -- a placid man far too experienced to get carried away by the post-game euphoria -- admitted later that “you want your forwards scoring goals and involved in the play.” But this may be a problem that will be squelched before it develops -- perhaps just as soon as Juan Pablo Angel returns from injury.
Trying to translate the Red Bull performance into MLS terms is a fruitless exercise, I think. I imagine that the opposition offered by the Chicago Fire this coming weekend will surely be much stiffer. It is bound to be, because there is a big difference in the psychology behind an MLS regular season game, and a stadium-opening exhibition game. But, as usual in MLS, there are too many unknowns to speak confidently -- after all, the Fire is also a rebuilt team with a new coach.
Getting back to the other attraction, the stadium. There is a problem with the field -- it evidently had not drained well after the buckets of rain that had fallen a week earlier. It had been heavily dosed with sand, which sprayed up with every kick, something that should not be happening if the state-of-the-art drainage is working properly. Nevertheless, it played pretty well, I think, though I do worry about the effects of those rugby games scheduled for mid-June.
To get the only other drawback out of the way, the parking is a mess. A mess because, incredibly with a new stadium, it's non-existent. A special bus-service from Newark didn’t work out too well, either -- the 10-minute direct ride ended up taking over an hour because of traffic congestion.
I assume those problems will be worked out, certainly diminished. And then all that will remain of the opening of Red Bull arena was that, with the beautiful weather, the splendid Red Bull victory, the brilliant post-game firework display, this was truly, for New York area soccer fans, A Night to Remember.