A bright March afternoon greeted RBNY's first home match of the 2014 MLS season, and brought an alleged 20, 542 bodies through the gate to see the reigning Supporters' Shield holders (or League Champions, if you want to use the metric system) host Colorado.
Facing the daunting proposition of staging this club's first ever we-won-a-proper-trophy-last-year, home-opener, the marketing honchos at Red Bull opted for some cross-promotion: delving into the brand's bag of athletes and pulling out Sasha DiGiulian, a rock climber of singular ability. The first American woman to climb grade 9a (5.14d) -- Don't know what that means? It means she's better than you. -- delivered a nuanced tribute to the increasing challenges faced by fans seeking to use public transport to reach Red Bull Arena.
While she beetled her way across the girders supporting the roof overhanging the South Ward, the supporters unfurled the tifo we'd always hoped we'd see: Mike Petke holding an honest-to-goodness piece of silverware. "Old Dreams. New Reality" read the accompanying banners.
Fireworks, supersized Mike Petke, an elite athlete forced to fetch the match ball down from the roof: It was a good day.
The game started well too. In the 2nd minute, Henry broke free down the right, crossed to the near post, and watched Bradley Wright-Phillips just miss the target. Two minutes later, Armando got clear of everyone on a set piece to plant a header over the bar. BWP stretched the defense again in the 5th minute. Henry danced all over the final third -- frolicking, aptly, in front of the South Ward, where the pitch was more sand pit than field.
In the first fifteen minutes, the Rapids didn't have a shot on goal. The only danger RBNY faced was self-inflicted: Roy Miller scuffed a pass out of the area, leaving Tim Cahill floundering and the ball loitering at the top of the box with Colorado players closing in. But the moment passed. RBNY settled back into their pattern of mixing long balls over the top with jealously guarding possession.
It was a good day, seemingly destined to get better. It was, therefore, surprising when Colorado produced the match's first shot on target: Dillon Serna's stinging drive from inside the box in the 17th minute. And the second: a near-post back-heel from Jose Mari that jolted Luis Robles to his alert, scrambling best. It was a handy wake-up call, because the Rapids registered the third and fourth shots on target too. Around the half-hour mark, Serna fired off another shot at Robles. Shortly thereafter, Nick LaBrocca spotted the RBNY 'keeper off his line, and launched a shot on goal from 30 yards - but for a gymnastic save from Robles, the Rapids would have opened the scoring.
This was no longer the match we thought we were watching in the first ten minutes. A sequence in the 38th minute illustrated how things had changed. Dillon Powers tripped Henry near the halfway line - free kick to RBNY. New York's captain trudged toward goal to join BWP and Cahill as targets for the set piece. Richard Eckersley stood over the ball, pondered a well-marked, static line of three forwards ahead of him, perhaps wondered why the best free kick taker on the team was standing in the 18-yard box, and...was waved away by Jamison Olave, who jabbed the ball into motion in an effort to generate some life out of his teammates.
After some harmless short passing around the hinterland outside the Rapids' area, RBNY coughed up possession, and the set piece opportunity turned into a Deshorn Brown breakaway, culminating in a shot lashed over Robles's crossbar.
The first half closed out with the two teams trading punches: Henry narrowly missed with an effort to chip rookie 'keeper John Berner from the halfway line; Serna smacked yet another shot from inside the box wide; a deflected Henry cross gave Berner the chance to at least pretend to save something; the Rapids' sixth corner of the opening 45 minutes preceded the halftime whistle.
The second half followed much the same pattern: RBNY saw a lot of the ball, but couldn't do much with it; the Rapids were consistently threatening on the counter. In the sense that neither team was achieving a great deal in front of goal, it was an even game.
Still, in the 57th minute, the Red Bulls finally managed to get the ball in the net. Lloyd Sam crossed to the far post, Tim Cahill made a threatening run that drew every available defender to him, and Thierry Henry - unmarked - scored a rare header. It could have been enough to win the game. It should have been enough to win the game. But it wasn't.
Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni had used up all his subs by the 65th minute: March Burch on for an injured Chris Klute (52'), Marvin Chavez for an ineffective Gabriel Torres (61'), and Vicente Sanchez for a tiring Dillon Powers (65'). The latter two combined for the Rapids' goal. Sort of.
It was a goal that should never have been. Chavez rose to collect a chip into the box in his chest, stepped back into Jamison Olave, fell over in a way that will happen when you are 5' 5" and have just collided with someone who is 6' 3" - and the referee called a penalty. Sanchez knocked it in.
There followed a lot of scuffling, and striving, and rolling around, but very little to suggest these teams were going to work their way out of the tie. The Red Bulls had plenty of chances in the closing minutes of the game, but Berner made his first, and only, save of the match in the last minute of stoppage time.
It's too early to get agitated about tactics when the team has only played two games, can't hit the target, and, as it happens, is level on points with its performance last year (we weren't great in March 2013).
Mike Petke put out a different lineup from that which started against Vancouver - as was expected. Less expected, perhaps, was Richard Eckersley keeping his place at right back, while Ibrahim Sekagya made way for Olave. BWP slotted in up top, pushing Cahill into midfield and Peguy Luyindula to the bench. Bobby Convey's start on the left, paired with Lloyd Sam on the right wing, implied a desire to see crosses raining in from both sides of the pitch.
There were a lot of crosses from New York (29), but not one was credited to Convey, who deferred to Roy Miller or cut inside on runs he seemed to lack the pace to justify. Jonny Steele's late appearance in the game brought the crossing Petke was apparently seeking from his left midfielder.
In central midfield, the McCarty-Cahill tandem reverted to its least effective tendency: a double-pivot which basically means Cahill is watching half the attacking action from the halfway line. It may ultimately be RBNY's best midfield partnership, but part of the reason Luyindula appeared to work so well in midfield last year was he tended to force Cahill (and Henry, who ghosts back when he feels under-served) into the box. New York's goal illustrated the value of Cahill running into the area - he draws defenders to him, potentially leaving Henry open.
What appeared to be happening on the field on Saturday was a team getting to know itself. This is worth some concern. This is supposed to be the season we see the 2013 side really play with confidence, benefiting from being kept together for another year. But this weekend we saw two new defenders in the back four (Armando and Eckersley), a strike pairing which hasn't seen much time together (BWP and Henry), a Convey-Miller combo on the left which needs work, and a lot of over-hit crosses and under-hit passes that suggested intentions and abilities were being misread all over the field.
Maybe that makes sense. If this is the new era of continuity, then we are being treated to a newfound consistency - including a slow start to the season.