By Paul Gardner
For the second game in a row, the Red Bull fans have voted goalkeeper Bouna Condoul as their player of the game. I believe that’s who the voters are -- no one, even among the Red Bull staff, seemed very sure.
It should be noted that these were home games for the Red Bulls, who won both of them, 3-1 against Santos, and then 1-0 over Chicago in the MLS season opener.
Two wins then -- so what’s with this goalkeeper business? Against Santos, Condoul made two excellent saves, but neither was in the exceptional class -- in other words, difficult saves that a good goalkeeper should be expected to make. Against Chicago, there was another good save, from a free kick. Other than that, Condoul simply did his job, and did it well.
His MVP selection for both games hardly does justice to the field players -- Joel Lindpere, for instance, who got through a lot of work, and who scored a fine goal in each game. Picking a goalkeeper as the MVP can mean that the voters have made the wrong choice, which was definitely the case here for the award in the Chicago game, if not for the Santos game as well.
More likely is that an MVP award to a goalkeeper is an obvious admission that the team is having its troubles. A team that is playing well will not be relying on a string of goalkeeper saves to for its victories.
The Chicago game finished 1-0 to the Red Bulls. It was hardly an inspiring game, and I’m inclined to think that the one-goal edge can be put down to the stadium factor -- the fans, and the atmosphere they create in the new Red Bull Arena.
Those loyal fans who for 14 years have been singing and chanting and flag-waving in the vast Giants stadium, have always looked an isolated, forlorn lot. Almost as though they were in quarantine behind one goal, their noise and their enthusiasm somehow divorced from the action and quickly being swallowed up by the emptiness of the stadium.
Not now. They are no longer the small group of over-enthusiastic supporters, an almost embarrassing presence that had to be separated off ... they are now the ever-faithful leaders of the fun. Their songs and their chants no longer fall and die on the stony ground of empty seating tiers, but are welcomed among the fertile ranks of fellow fans. Now we have a stadium that can generate and sustain a full-throated “Let’s Go Red Bulls” chant.
We’ve waited a long time for this, and it is very exciting. And, no doubt, rather intimidating for the opponents. That intimidation, plus the effect of crowd pressure on officiating decisions -- they have always been a crucial part of soccer.
They’ve been slow to arrive in American soccer, which has had to wait a long time for clubs to have their own stadium and for the growth of committed fan groups. That is the home-field factor that I think will surely help the Red Bulls this season. As for the team -- it remains, as it was when Juan Carlos Osorio departed, a rather lost team, still without style, still without any assured way of moving the ball forward.
Lindpere, yes, he works hard, but he is not exactly an elegant player. His actions -- those that work as well as those that don’t -- have the sudden jerkiness of last-second reaction, rather than the smoothness of a sharp soccer brain at work. The good news from that point of view is that both of his goals were the result of instant reactions to the ball appearing unexpectedly before him near the edge of the penalty area -- and in both cases Lindpere got it beautifully right with unstoppable rocket-shots into the net.
The worrying thing about Lindpere is his evident enjoyment in expending energy. He spends a good deal of his time quite deep in his won half, “helping out” I suppose one could call it, on defense. Is his help really needed there? Doubtful, I’d say. If he is to be the playmaker that Coach Hans Backe suggested, he’s not going to accomplish much playing so deep. And if he is to be a dangerous constantly-probing and goalscoring attacking threat, defending in deep areas is also a waste of his energy.
One thing that failed to appear on Saturday was any evidence of a link-up between Lindpere and Juan Pablo Angel, something that surely has to happen. Partly, this was a result of Lindpere not spending enough time within close passing range of Angel. But if Lindpere cannot interchange short passes with Angel, which I suspect is the case, he should be able -- should be required -- to feed Angel playable ground balls. Angel got precious few of those from anyone against Chicago. With the formation used, Angel should have been combining with Macoumba Kandji, but there was little evidence of Kandji combining with anyone.
The Red Bulls have now signed Ibrahim Salou, whose main quality appears to be bulk. Against Santos he and his ostensible partner Kandji barely even recognized each other. Nor can it be said that either Danleigh Borman or Dane Richards are exactly world-beaters when it comes to passing movements.
So we fall back on the waiting game, waiting for the super-star, the second DP. Whoever it turns out to be, it will surely be an attacking player. What is needed here is a genuine playmaker, an orchestrator who can pull the individual talents together. Someone to play the role that, for example, Andres Iniesta plays with Barcelona, or Cesc Fabregas with Arsenal. Of the two most cited as likely to join the Red Bulls, neither Thierry Henry nor Raul is noted for that role, but both would surely be quickly capable of adapting to it.