Brazilian opening adds excitement to Red Bull Arena

By Paul Gardner

One of the great moments in New York soccer history is now almost upon us. Pity it has to happen in New Jersey, but I guess, just this once, we can go along with the Red Bull’s impertinent claim to be the New York Red Bulls.

A shining new stadium, a real soccer stadium, the Red Bull Arena, will open tomorrow night, with a soldout crowd -- that’s 25,189 Red Bull fans, or maybe Red Bull Arena fans. Whatever. I’ve had my say already about the stadium -- it’s a beauty, no doubt about that.

No, of course it’s not perfect. The parking is a disaster -- basically, there isn’t any. Which means that the pre-game tailgating that was such a vibrant, colorful activity at Giants Stadium back in the Cosmos days, can’t happen. Maybe the resourceful fans will think of something -- because despite there being nowhere to park, there is a lot of open space around the arena.

A brilliant new stadium for the Red Bulls, then, and a new team, which may or may not turn out to be brilliant, under its new coach Hans Backe. The visitors tomorrow will be Pele’s old Brazilian club, Santos. Which is a pretty good choice for an opening game. Will the game tell us anything about how strong or how weak, or maybe just how mediocre, the Red Bulls are going to be during this currently in-the-balance MLS season?

I think not. We’ll get a look at some of Backe’s new players -- in particular Joel Lindpere, Roy Miller and Ibrahim Salou, plus Carl Robinson who we’ve already seen a lot of, too much really, during his three dull years with Toronto. But this is still a preseason game, and a rather special one at that. There are unique emotions at work here.

MLS preseason games tend to be even more misleading than most other leagues, not least because the clubs have a habit of playing college teams, who cannot be expected to offer any sort of test to an adult pro team. Sometimes the scores are close, but usually only when the MLS clubs are using young, experimental lineups. It’s difficult to see what the MLS coaches get out of those games, which are nothing more than glorified scrimmages.

The Santos game, of course, will be tougher. But that does not necessarily mean a rough night for the Bulls. We’ve been here before, 42 years ago, and that turned out to be an extraordinary occasion. It was Friday July 10, 1968, and the New York Generals were playing in Yankee Stadium (which, talking of stadiums, is now in the process of being razed to the ground). The Generals, like the Red Bulls, were a problem team that -- at that point, about two-thirds of the way through the North American Soccer League season, had won only 7 of its 20 games.

They did have a superstar, an Argentine named Cesar Luis Menotti. CannonBall Menotti, he was called, for his fearsome left foot which, so far, had yet to be seen (yes, it was the Menotti, the one who coached Argentina to World Cup victory 10 years later in 1978).

On the night I’m talking about, the Generals played an exhibition game against -- yes, against Santos. Complete with Pele. Before the game, I’d spoken to the Generals’ coach, Freddy Goodwin, who reckoned his team had a chance. They couldn’t stop Pele -- “you can’t really stop him” -- but they could stop the ball getting to him. I probably didn’t snigger out loud, but internally I sniggered a-plenty. The idea ... !

Another problem for the Generals was that their average crowd in the huge stadium was 3,000. But not this night -- when 16,000 turned up, most of them to see Pele. They did see Pele -- but they saw a hell of a lot more of the Generals, who at halftime were leading 3-0. Santos had been -- truly! -- outplayed and simply run off their feet. It ended in a 5-3 win for the Generals. And the star of the night was Menotti who, at long last, smashed home a memorable goal with that left foot of his.

It was the occasion itself that had shot the adrenaline through every Generals player, had enabled the team to play so far above itself. And it seems to me quite likely that something similar may take hold of the Red Bulls tomorrow.

We won’t get eight goals, of course. That happened back in 1968, when soccer was a more open game, before the straight-jacket of organized defensive play had started to strangle the vivacity out of the game.

That 5-3 scoreline indicates pretty clearly that both teams were doing a lot of attacking. You don’t get those sort of games any more. What you do get are teams that do a lot of defending. But hold on -- this is an exhibition game, doesn’t that very title imply that it’s supposed to be entertaining?

I’m hopeful -- despite the bad news. The game will be played without its two brightest attacking players. Santos will be missing Robinho, out with a thigh injury; he’ll join the Red Bulls’ Juan Pablo Angel on the sidelines -- Angel is also out, with a knee injury.

Disappointing, of course -- but the positives are the hope that one can still rely on a Brazilian team to play openly entertaining soccer, and that Backe will live up to his assurance that the Red Bulls will be an attacking team. On top of that there is the thrill of the occasion, that same flood of excitement and emotion that swept the Generals to a famous victory over Santos 42 years ago.

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