By Ridge Mahoney
What's the perfect remedy melting down twice on the road to start the new season? Coming home, of course.
According to the Red Bulls’ head coach and a few players, a home opener against bitter rival D.C. United fills the bill perfectly. Speaking after last Sunday’s 2-1 loss to San Jose in which goals in the 83rd and 92nd minutes wiped out an otherwise laudable effort, they were anxiously looking ahead.
“Big, big game against D.C.,” said Dax McCarty of the Saturday match (12:30 p.m. ET) to be televised on NBC as part of a 10-hour MLS marathon broadcast by the main channel and its affiliate, NBC Sports Network. “It’s one that we’ve got to win in front of our home fans and we’ve got to get on the board.”
Coach Mike Petke lamented a second straight collapse, following a 3-3 tie in Portland March 2 the Red Bulls had led, 3-1, early in the second half. Two newcomers, Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave, scored their goals, but a late Olave own goal resulted in a disappointing deadlock.
The Quakes were missing four injured starters, including Bash Brothers Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon (who scored a combined 23 goals last year), yet emulated their amazing run of 2012 comebacks by striking back through rookie sub Adam Jahn’s spectacular volley to tie the game and a re-taken Chris Wondolowski penalty kick to win it.
“I’m very happy with a lot from last week and a lot from tonight,” said Petke, obviously pained by two squandered opportunities to claim his first victory in charge. “Like I said, they pushed so many guys forward trying to get that win, get that goal back, and we didn’t do a good job dealing with it. However, up until that point, I’m very happy with the way we played.”
Until Jahn’s stunning volley from a tight angle, New York took claim as the better team. Aside from a Wondolowski header that floated well wide and a few other half-chances, the Red Bulls squelched the San Jose attack and led, 1-0, on a close-range volley by midfielder Eric Alexander. But for the second straight week, New York’s breakdowns – stemming this time from a failure to keep possession as three Quakes’ substitutions ratcheted up the pressure -- undid its heretofore good work.
“It’s happened twice. The second half of both games, we’ve just caved in,” said centerback Heath Pearce, whose partnership with former RSL defender Olave is among the key changes of the Petke regime. “We haven’t withstood the pressure, we haven’t broken pressure well enough.
“The times we do break pressure, it gives us a chance to breathe and we find some good rhythm in the game. Though I thought we were in control late in the second half I still think we need to do better to hold the ball and implement our game on other teams for 90 minutes.”
The obvious guilt of defender Roy Miller -- whose handball gave away the penalty kick and subsequent encroachment provided Wondolowski the opportunity to erase keeper Luis Robles’ leg save of his initial attempt -- obscured other issues. Central mids McCarty and Tim Cahill lost their foothold in that part of the field, and the previously secure flanks were breached by subs Sam Garza and Cordell Cato, whose moves opened up space.
San Jose equalized when Sam Cronin got to the left byline and crossed to the opposite post for Jahn to finish emphatically. “It was pretty good defending, we were well-organized for 80 minutes, and then it’s a runner [Cronin] out of midfield,” said McCarty. “We don’t follow him, it’s a great ball in, and the guy [Jahn], give him credit, it’s a good finish.
“We kept Wondo in check. He didn’t have too many opportunities, if any, and then basically we hand the game to them on a silver platter in the last 10 minutes.”
A Jahn header struck Miller, standing just a few yards away, on the arm. If that incident could be deemed bad luck, no such defense could be presented for Miller’s blatant encroachment on the first penalty-kick attempt that Robles repelled. Miller subsequently admitted he’d encroached intentionally to nullify the initial PK had Wondolowski converted it, not realizing that encroachment by a defending player during a successful kick does not necessitate a re-take. In that case, the goal would have stood and he’d have been cautioned anyway.
Instead, he compounded his encroachment gaffe by gifting the league’s most prolific scorer the past three seasons (61 goals) a second chance. Publicly, at least, his coach and teammates have stood by him. Without naming names, Pearce lamented Henry’s encroachment on a penalty kick during the Eastern Conference semifinals against D.C. last November. The violation forced Kenny Cooper to re-take his successful kick, and backup keeper Joe Willis saved the second attempt as United prevailed, 1-0, to win the series on aggregate, 2-1.
“Then to give up a penalty, save it, and have to go through it again, it’s kind of like a repeat of the playoffs last year,” Pearce said. “It’s disappointing for us.”
New York can wipe away a lot of that disappointment by beating D.C. in the first of three Atlantic Cup meetings this season. Petke admits frustration at trying mold a possession-oriented team capable of withstanding pressure and riding out rough spells without conceding goals, while still grinding out results with a revamped roster. If need be, he’s more than willing to sacrifice style for points.
“This is a results business and when we’re winning in the 80th minute, I’d like to think we’re gonna have men to step up and figure it out and gut it out and get it done,” said Petke. “Whether they ran out of steam or not again, I couldn’t tell ya, but I’m proud of them for most of the game.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to really re-think if we’re going to be a possession team, because if we can’t be, or we refuse to be, then I’m going to bring on guys who can win head balls and just hammer the ball 60, 70 yards up every game, get a flick-on, and score.”