What did we learn by Chicago’s 2-0 defeat of New York at Red Bull Arena on Saturday?
Of the two teams, the Fire showed much greater character and played to its strengths. New York, despite the presence of Kenny Cooper and Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry, misfired in the attack and broke down defensively to mark yet another lost opportunity to pass Chicago in the standings.
Goals 13 minutes apart by Sherjill MacDonald twice exposed New York’s porous central defense with balls into the channels. You’d think that this late into the season, the Red Bulls would have figured out ways to shut off attacks in the middle third, or resolve when and how to play the offside trap, and you’d be wrong.
On the first, MacDonald ran onto a ball from Chris Rolfe more than 40 yards from goal yet still took the ball deep into the penalty area before centerback Heath Pearce could catch him, and by then MacDonald had already clipped the ball past keeper Luis Robles. MacDonald worked the left channel for his second goal that he scored after cruising past defender Marcus Holgersson to reach a feed from Daniel Paladini, who had slipped an attempted tackle by Dax McCarty.
MacDonald isn’t blessed with the pace of teammate Dominic Oduro, who started most of the games up top until MacDonald arrived on the scene, yet he had no trouble gliding behind the Red Bulls’ back line. New York’s ineptitude at holding a high line opened up plenty of space on the first goal. On the second goal, when McCarty’s slide tackle failed to halt Paladini, Holgersson failed to recognize how much deeper he was than his defensive teammates – so he couldn’t trap MacDonald offside -- and couldn’t react in time to intercept the ensuing through ball.
Replays on the second goal revealed a tight offside situation with MacDonald in line with Holgersson, who may have thought MacDonald was offside. Yet Holgersson could have erased all doubt by stepping up as Paladini controlled a tricky bounce before playing a through ball the defender had no chance of running down in time.
Centerbacks can rescue their teams in desperate situations. Arne Friedrich did just that early in the game by blocking a Henry shot, and rather than having to rally on the road, Chicago kept the game tight for more than hour before breaking through. The pairing of Friedrich with rookie Austin Berry went through a few wobbles after an injury to Cory Gibbs forced the realignment, but for the past couple of months it has grown stronger and more resilient. The shaky moments for the Red Bulls, on the other hand, persist.
After disappointing losses at Kansas City and at home against Philadelphia, Chicago – with Coach Frank Klopas back on the bench after he’d served a one-match suspension – steered its season back on-course with a vital win. The hold-up play of MacDonald, as contrasted to the searing pace of Oduro, has brought out the playmaking abilities of Rolfe, Paladini, and ex-Sounder Alvaro Fernandez. There’s still speed in the lineup with Patrick Nyarko, and the return to the lineup of left back Gonzalo Segares – who like Klopas was suspended for the Philly match – shored up that side of the field.
New York, which hadn’t lost at home this season until falling to Sporting Kansas City, 2-0, Sept. 19, turned in another clunker in front of many scattered blue seats that belied the announced attendance of 21,157. Apparently the fans weren’t convinced by the intervening 4-1 thrashing of Toronto FC, and the news earlier this week of a management shakeup – Jerome de Bontin has replaced general manager Erik Soler – doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as one of Henry’s postgame comments.
“They’re a better team, more organized, wanted it more,” Henry said to MLSsoccer.com.
He’s right on all counts. But did that performance reflect poor preparation, lack of cohesiveness, or disgruntlement? While New York has an impressive array of pieces to field they don’t seem to be fitting together at the most crucial juncture of the season.
With de Bontin’s statements to the effect he’ll be in charge of building up attendance and concentrating on the business side, and that he believes the team’s current crop of players can win MLS Cup, he isn’t in agreement with a portion of the fan base that has been deriding its defense for much of the season.
The task of winning an MLS Cup thus falls to head coach Hans Backe and, ahem, Head of Global Soccer – and former head coach of Liverpool, Aston Villa, Lyon, and the French national team -- Gerard Houllier. There’s two more games to go in the regular season, and then presumably a playoff appearance, and then, assuredly, yet another season of being at a crossroads, and in the crosshairs.