This was worth waiting for -- but how we had to wait last night! Right down almost to the last minute, when the Red Bulls’ teenager Juan Agudelo delivered a magnificent goal -- of which more shortly.
But the wait was a trying one. On and on went the rather shapeless game between D.C. United and the Red Bulls, with D.C. struggling to get anything going, and the Red Bulls looking decidedly unwilling to take any risks or up the tempo once they had established an early 2-0 lead.
The goals both came from Thierry Henry, to which one might feel inclined to say ... and about time, too. First, Henry found himself unmarked in the middle of the D.C. penalty area, and got off a powerful, picture-book header. The second goal was simply Henry moving in to slam home a loose ball as the D.C. defenders fell over each other in an unseemly tangle.
D.C. tried as best they could to get back into the game. But on this evidence they have little to offer. The up-front combination of Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff looks good on paper, but spluttered ineffectually on grass. For most of the first half the Bulls were defending -- by choice, evidently -- allowing DC 60 percent of the possession. But it could have been 90 per cent, such was D.C.’s inability to threaten the Bulls’ goal. In the second half, with the entry of Branko Boskovic, D.C. showed more teeth, but then it discovered that luck was against it as Boskovic hit the goalposts twice.
The Bulls’ defense may or not be as good as it looked here, but who knows? When there is no fire, how do you assess the ability of those who are supposed to put it out? Up at the sharp end of the team, things were much more promising, but also much more frustrating. The good news was that Henry has now scored three goals. Great, But we’ve yet to see him do much more than get on the end of a cross or two. Scoring goals will, of course, keep him in the lineup, as will the fact that he’s also a highly paid DP.
But Coach Hans Backe has a problem here -- most of which he has created for himself. With the departure this season of Juan Pablo Angel, Backe went looking for a striker -- and came up with Luke Rodgers, a lower-division English player, and not a young one. Last weekend Rodgers scored two goals - neither exactly in the work-of-art class, but never mind, he got the ball in the net. That is something the Red Bulls had not been finding it too easy to do lately.
The goals were enough to nail down the Player of the Week award for Rodgers. Which meant that he almost had to start in this game. He duly did, and he played poorly. His main contributions to the first half were two moments of rough-house play, when he crashed wildly into D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid, and a dangerous tackle which sparked off a minor fracas with Clyde Simms and a posse of D.C. teammates.
What made this so irritating was the fact that Rodgers was keeping Juan Agudelo on the bench. Meaning that Backe preferred Rodgers to the youngster. That provoked the thought -- when Rodgers duly appeared on the field for the second half -- that Backe was staying with him for no better reason than to avoid the embarrassment of having to pull off someone he’d personally recruited. And who is being paid handsomely.
A poor decision. Rodgers got worse. In fact, the decision of whether to leave him on or take him off should have been settled in the 52nd minute by referee Jorge Gonzalez after Rodgers had thrown a wild round-house punch at D.C. defender Dejan Jakovic. Rodgers, somehow or other, escaped punishment, and was allowed to give us 23 more minutes of huffing, puffing, and nothing.
At last, in the 75th minute, Backe saw reason, and Rodgers was replaced by Agudelo, who gave us the best moment of this game, right at the end, in stoppage time. His goal was a beauty, a true golazo, conjured up in a brief flash of soccer genius.
As he ran into the D.C. area, the pass he received from Jan Gunnar Solli was not a great one, being a step behind him. Agudelo had to slam on the breaks and, while holding off defender Jakovic, reach back with his right leg to corral the ball. He managed to, just, but was now facing away from the goal. The ball popped a couple of feet into the air as Agudelo swiveled smoothly and scythed his right leg in a sweeping horizontal arc to volley perfectly past goalkeeper Hamid. All that in less time than those words take to read.
A superb goal. The combination of thought and bodily response is impressive enough, but the more so because all of it was accomplished with such smoothness. Even though Agudelo had to struggle to maintain his balance as he lunged back for the ball, all his movements had the grace of a trained dancer. I suspect that the MLS Goal of the Year competition is already over.
But we got to see less than 20 minutes of Agudelo. Backe would have us believe that he’s not ready. And that Rodgers is a better bet. Last night showed that is not the case. It will make no sense at all for Backe to put Agudelo back on the bench. Talent of this sort must be allowed to flower, and for that it needs the stimulus of tough competitive games. Sitting on the bench is not an option.
Comparisons will be made with Freddy Adu -- which is fair enough, but there is one major difference here, namely that the young Adu was widely seen as too small, which led to a feeling that he had to be protected from rough games -- until he got older and presumably stronger. Things have not worked out that well for Adu -- possibly because of that reluctance to play him when he was younger.
Agudelo has the advantage of already being a big player. He has done well with the full national team, but to rely on Bob Bradley playing him regularly would be flying in the face of Bradley’s well-established record of inconstancy with Hispanic players.
No -- if Agudelo is to play, meaning if he is to be given the immediate chance to develop -- it must be with the Red Bulls. Which means that Backe must stop hedging his bets with Rodgers, and must stop finding excuses for not starting Agudelo. Of course, Agudelo will have poor games -- but they could hardly be less productive than the 76 minutes that Rodgers gave us last night.
A player who has the coolness, the skill, the physical strength and the instinctive quickness that Agudelo showed in scoring his golazo last night is ready. To keep him on the bench would be sheer obtuseness on Backe’s part.