By Paul Gardner
No, frankly, it was not a major surprise that the Red Bulls would screw this one up. Simply because, whatever heights the mounting euphoria about their path to MLS Cup may have reached, it was surely pretty obvious that they were not playing well.
Apart from an excellent away-game performance against Los Angeles, the Bulls have been struggling to score goals, and have rarely produced anything that looked like stylish, flowing soccer.
Yet, game after rather boring game, their poor form and their meager goalscoring turned out to be enough. Before the playoffs, their previous 8 games had produced 11 goals. Not even 1.5 a game. More worrying, I thought, was that only two goals had been scored by out-and-out forwards -- one each for the highly paid Juan Pablo Angel and the even more highly paid Thierry Henry.
For a team to be existing on goals from midfielders, even defenders, is never, in my experience, a good thing. Partly because it indicates a somewhat dysfunctional team. And, as a result of that, it indicates a dangerously haphazard source of goals, one that cannot be relied upon.
When the playoffs arrived, the pattern continued -- almost to perfection, if that’s the right word. The Red Bulls traveled to San Jose and won 1-0 ... on a goal by midfielder Joel Lindpere. This was not a game in which the Red Bulls played well. The livelier play came from San Jose.
Thursday night’s game really continued the pattern from the first game. This time, San Jose got an early reward from some enterprising attacking play -- a nicely taken goal from Bobby Convey.
At that point, based on the previous game, I was thinking that San Jose would win this one. But my mind was changed by the play of Juan Agudelo --a young player (can he really be only 17 years old?) of whom we have seen not nearly enough this season. A player who added real venom to the Bulls’ attack, and who looked to be capable of meshing well with Angel ... in other words, perhaps Agudelo was exactly what the Red Bulls had been missing, the catalyst who would give the Red Bulls a strike force that actually scored goals. So now I convinced myself that the Red Bulls would come out on top.
But ... while Agudelo always remained a threat, the pressure applied by the Red Bulls retained its haphazard nature. Chances there were, but scrambly, hectic sort of chances that were, in turn, repulsed in a scrambly, hectic way by a far from convincing San Jose defense. Sooner or later, probably sooner, the Red Bulls were going to score, that was clear.
But Convey had other ideas. By now playing at fullback, he advanced to pop up where he really belongs, near the opposing goal, and crafted a superb goal for San Jose. First came an electrifying turn that left Tim Ream for dead, then he quickly and directly dribbled into the penalty area and hit a perfect shot that ripped past goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul at the near post. As Ream and Coundoul have been repeatedly praised throughout the season (and quite rightly so) as the main pillars of a pretty good Red Bulls defense, this was a hell of an effort from Convey.
San Jose was now leading the series 2-1, but not for long. Agudelo saw to that with a nifty dribble and a perfectly floated cross that Angel headed in. At last, some realforward play.
It turned out to be too little too late -- about a half a season too late, by my estimation. Two minutes later, Convey turned provider with a an inch-perfect forward ball that Chris Wondolowski turned into a looping header over Condoul for San Jose’s third, and winning, goal.
And then things sort of fell apart for New York. When you see three subs lined up on the sideline, you know it’s panic time. Of course Thierry Henry was coming in ... but why on earth Coach Hans Backe found it necessary to take out Agudelo baffles me.
Henry, we know, is returning from an injury -- but could that possibly be any excuse for his appalling miss in the 88th minute -- an unopposed header that he put over the bar? The gaffe marked the end of the Red Bulls season -- and the end of Henry’s first season of play. I’m tempted to compare Henry’s adventures with those of David Beckham’s first year with the Galaxy: too many words, too many injuries -- and not nearly enough good soccer.
With Angel seemingly determined to be playing somewhere other than New York next season, the Red Bulls have an opening for a replacement forward. But they also need a commanding, creative midfielder. Joel Lindpere has done well enough for the team this season, but his play totally lacks subtlety. Last night, sad to say, it lacked almost everything, he was simply not an influence on the game.
The San Jose Earthquakes move on, deservedly I think. In the end they took more risks, played with more attacking ideas. Of course they attacked in the first game, their home game, that is what home teams to in a two game series. And in last night’s game, a goal down, they had little choice but to go for it.
It was an obvious tactic -- but San Jose should probably always play that way -- their attacking can look pretty good at times. Their defense never looked convincing. Of course, we were told after the game by the San Jose players that “we had a game plan.”
Really? Maybe. But what we see, again and again, is that these miraculous game plans only seem to be called upon when a team knows damn well that, to have any chance, it has to abandon caution and go for goals. That is what San Jose did last night -- and they scored three times in Red Bull Arena, a venue where, apart from the Columbus Crew, no other MLS team has scored more than once this season. And of course -- and not incidentally -- they gave us a thoroughly entertaining game.