By Ridge Mahoney
So what happened to all those complaints that Toyota Park in Bridgeview is a field too far?
Throw a famous name or five into the media maelstrom, and the place is packed. It happened a few times during the reign of Cuauhtemoc Blanco – including both of last year’s playoff matches – and Sunday night fans were turned away as 21,868 lucky souls got to see an incredibly entertaining and flat-out fun 0-0 tie with the Red Bulls.
Not all five DPs got onto the field at the same time – when Nery Castillo entered midway through the second half, Thierry Henry had already withdrawn with a groin injury – yet the poise of Rafael Marquez, the bustling energy of Freddie Ljungberg, the deceptive quickness of Henry, the threatening pace of Castillo, and the goalmouth instincts of Juan Pablo Angel more than made up for the dearth of goals. Unlike many MLS matches, which disappoint on the field and in the stands, this one felt like a real game.
Yet a more subtle pleasure to witness was how many of the non-DPs stepped right into the higher tier of savvy and quality. There were bird-brained decisions and butchered touches, to be sure, and had Angel been granted the chances Macoumba Kandji squandered, it’s unlikely spectacular rookie keeper Sean Johnson would have posted a shutout in just his second MLS start. Still, Johnson did stop Angel twice, batting away a rising shot at the near post and lunging acrobatically the other way to tip clear a clinical header.
Another rookie, Tim Ream, knifed into tackles and read situations sharply while getting to know Marquez, who played as a defensive shield in front of the back line. Deployed wide left rather than centrally to start the match, Joel Lindpere didn’t look entirely sure of his positioning but seldom erred in his decisions or timing. Moved up front after playing the first half at right mid, Kandji replaced Henry up top; he broke free four times in the first 11 minutes of the second half but failed to score. Right back Chris Albright got upfield to find plentiful options for his passes and crosses.
Despite playing at home, the Fire scrambled to contain New York for much of the match, so its possessions were few. Ljungberg powered into the attack on several occasions; though he and Brian McBride and Marco Pappa seldom clicked, there were bright moments of narrow misses that can be connected through repetition and time together.
Offside traps caught Castillo in threatening situations; this, too, is a glitch that can be fixed. Mike Banner, Logan Pause and John Thorrington if he gets healthy, are shrewd players who can adapt to their experienced and clever new teammates, and so too is left back Gonzalo Segares, who has returned to MLS after five months in Cyprus.
Henry’s departure at halftime and Marquez’s exit on the hour and Castillo’s obvious lack of fitness and crispness served as cautionary notes. New players need time, and heightened expectations and bigger paychecks shouldn’t overly rush the process. More than one-third of the regular season remains for players and teams and coaches to sort it all out.
As all this DP buzz bubbled came word from the man who started it all that he expects to get back in action next month. Can MLS have reached a point where David Beckham needs the league more than it needs David Beckham? Let’s hope so.
The slam-bam 5-4 game played at the Meadowlands three years ago with Beckham and Angel on opposing teams dazzled the nation and drew more than 66,000 fans, but lacked staying power. Now, both teams, and many other members of MLS, have more than luster and bluster to rely on.