MLS Commissioner Don Garber was looking rather pleased with himself. The 13th MLS Cup final had passed into history only a couple of hours ago, the Columbus Crew was the new champion and Garber
declared that it had been "a satisfactory afternoon. A good afternoon for soccer in America."
A fair judgment, unless you happened to be of the Red Bull persuasion -- from that
viewpoint, things weren't so rosy. Even so, the final 3-1 scoreline could not be described as a shock -- it was probably close to what most people would have predicted. But the course of the game
did not develop as expected.
All of Juan Carlos Osorio's coach-talk before the kickoff had been stressing the importance of defense. And the Red Bulls had certainly done their best to
give truth to his words during the 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake. But coaches are mysterious people, given to enigmatic pronouncements.
The day before the game, Osorio was asked about
his apparent pleasure in being classified as a defensive coach. No confirmation, no denial, just a smile and "Is that what I am?"
Well, it's what you yourself said, he was
told. "I like to think that I am a well-balanced coach," said Osorio. Difficult to argue with a middle-of-the-road position like that, but I, for one, was not about to believe it. So I asked
-- "What happens to your tactics, your play, tomorrow, if Columbus scores the first goal?" Osorio suddenly looked quite serious, "It will be tough," he said. And we left it at
As it happened, Columbus did score first -- but it hardly deserved to. Against all predictions, against everything that we had seen so far in the playoffs, it was the Red Bulls who
took over the game, and dominated the first half. And it was the Red Bulls who ought to have opened the scoring.
"We came out and attacked, and I think that surprised them,"
said Osorio. Yes, we had Alejandro Moreno's word for that, he admitted that the Red Bull's aggressive play "had set us back a little."
It was good stuff from the Bulls
-- explosive running (but poor passing) from Dane Richards, and a series of menacing crosses from Dave van den Bergh that caused some alarm for the Columbus defenders -- not least when Danny
O'Rourke made a mess of trying to clear Angel's cross and goalkeeper Will Hesmer had to dive at John Wolyniec's feet.
Good soccer, better than the Crew's, definitely. It
deserved a goal. But we all know that soccer doesn't work like that. All it took was momentary lapse of concentration from van den Bergh ... and what had been such a promising afternoon for the
Red Bulls began to darken.
Van den Bergh was particularly unlucky that his lapse happened with Guillermo Barros Schelotto lurking nearby -- because Schelotto thinks as quickly as anyone
in MLS. Or maybe there is no thinking process, how can there be, there's no time for it, it's all instant instinct. As van den Bergh paused to allow the ball to roll into touch, Schelotto
pounced, kept it in play and swept it forward to Moreno who raced on to score.
A word about that goal: there was much talk about goalkeeper Danny Cepero being at fault in his positioning.
Really? He got a hand to the ball, which only just entered the goal near the far post. He was beaten, in fact, by a perfectly placed shot -- and Moreno had to hit that ball hard and straight with a
space of not much more than two feet to aim at.
But it is typical of today's defense-obsessed soccer that eyes should focus upon a supposed goalkeeper error rather than upon the high
attacking skills of Schelotto and Moreno.
The Bulls had conceded the first goal, and as Osorio had said, it was tough. There was, early in the second half, an emphatic reply -- again, the
defensive frailties, if there were any don't concern me -- it was the trickery of Richards and the timely opportunism of Wolyniec, the attacking skills, that created the Bulls' tying goal.
At that moment we seemed headed for a heck of a game, but the promise lasted barely two minutes, until Chad Marshall headed the Crew into a 2-1 lead. And this goal was
surely about a
defensive breakdown. Because it came from a set play, a corner kick, and we'd watched the Red Bulls practice defending corner kicks the previous day. That part of the session was supposed to be
closed, but we watched anyway -- and I for one could see nothing so precious, so secret, that no outsider should be allowed to see it. Evidently, there was nothing worth hiding. Because Columbus
defender Chad Marshall, a known threat, already the scorer of a vital corner-kick goal against Chicago, was allowed to stroll forward and head home the winning goal.
Osorio spoke calmly
about that goal, but one sensed a storm raging beneath the calm, his despair that Diego Jimenez should have conceded, unnecessarily, the corner kick, and that Kevin Goldthwaite should then have so
badly misplayed his marking assignment on Marshall.
That was really the end of a remarkable run for the Red Bulls. Schelotto took over, and fashioned a third goal with a stylish chipped
pass that Frankie Hejduk finished with an anything but stylish header.
And so MLS Cup 2008 tapered off to a tame finish. But the game had not, in the final analysis, been about defense.
The nonsense earlier spouted by Osorio and by van den Bergh and Juan Pablo Angel had not exactly been proved wrong, it had turned out to be irrelevant because the Red Bulls played what I suppose
Osorio could describe as a "well-balanced" game. They lost to Columbus, not because Columbus was better defensively, but because it had the superior offense.
right then that the MVP award should go to Schelotto, the dominant figure on the field, a player of tremendous skill and guile, of tremendous attacking
skill and guile. He assisted on all
three Columbus goals, tempting me to scream out loud "Goals win championships!" Indeed they do -- as much as defense. Both maxims contain much truth. But to emphasize one over the other
suggests a failure to appreciate that the sport of soccer is badly distorted when it is broken up into distinct compartments. But if such dissections must be made, then "Goals win
championships!" is much the more attractive route to take. And, if I want to insist that it's true, I'll point to the decisive influence of Schelotto in MLS Cup 2008.