When Houston Dynamo's victory over Los Angeles Galaxy on the MLS regular season's final day confirmed the New York Red Bulls' playoff opponents as FC Dallas, Hans Backe and his men had to like their chances to advance. New York had beaten the Hoops just a few weeks previous at Pizza Hut Park - a victory achieved without the aid of Thierry Henry - and had generally played Schellas Hyndman's team tough in recent meetings. Moreover, of all the teams that managed to crawl over the playoff finish line, none did so in less convincing fashion than FC Dallas, who won only two of their final 12 games in all competitions, including a demoralizing home defeat in the CONCACAF Champions League at the hands of Toronto FC.
Taking all of this into account, not to mention the Red Bulls' improved late season form, it's hardly shocking that New York managed a 2-0 win in Wednesday's Wild Card playoff, thanks to a crucial second half goal by Joel Lindpere and a garbage time insurance strike by Thierry Henry. It must be noted, however, that the deceptively comfortable scoreline masks a performance which often, especially during the match's first half hour, exhibited hallmarks of the sluggish Red Bulls fans have seen too often this season.
Dallas was far the brighter team in the game's opening stages, as the Red Bulls struggled to move the ball out of their own half and lacked both movement and purpose. With a sparse crowd in Frisco, you'd be hard-pressed to recognize this as a crucial playoff game, but the FC Dallas players are no doubt used to playing without a great deal of home support. Tim Ream's giveaway early allowed Marvin Chavez to have a good look at goal, but his shot from near the top of the 18 rasped past Frank Rost's right hand post.
Little by little, New York began to find a way through the Dallas midfield and string passes together. Thierry Henry controlled a ball beautifully in the Dallas box shortly before halftime, but his quickly taken shot drifted over Kevin Hartman's goal. Tim Ream would get a chance to atone for his earlier defensive mistake, but his powerful shot was directed straight at Hartman. Heading to the locker room at the break, the Red Bulls had to feel fortunate to have weathered the early storm without going behind.
The moment that turned the game was the same one that likely had a majority of Red Bulls' fans rolling their eyes. Struggling with an ankle injury following a tackle in midfield, Dax McCarty was subbed off in favor of Mehdi Ballouchy in the 59th minute. Almost immediately, Ballouchy traded passes with Dane Richards down the right side after the Jamaican had done stellar work to keep the ball in play to the right of the Dallas penalty area. Ballouchy looked up, paused and slid an inch-perfect pass across the Dallas six yard box, right on the foot of the advancing Joel Lindpere. Dallas' defenders were caught napping, Hartman was left helpless and suddenly it was 1-0 to the Red Bulls with just a half hour to play. Credit to the much-maligned Ballouchy for a beautiful assist.
The Red Bulls went almost immediately into lockdown mode, still creating the odd chance but focusing largely on frustrating FC Dallas attacks, which they did with a great deal of success. With Frank Rost clearing away any danger that might arise and New York doing a good job of shutting down service to Brek Shea, Dallas had very few good looks at goal, while Thierry Henry and Dane Richards continued to make the odd foray forward to put pressure on Dallas' defenders and kill time.
Of course, this being a New York Red Bulls game, nothing is ever as easy as it looks. While chasing a ball that he had lost in midfield, Jan Gunnar Solli dove in with a needless two-footed tackle in the 79th minute and was correctly sent off by referee Ricardo Salazar. Backe took Richards off immediately for Carlos Mendes in an effort to slam the door in the final 15 minutes, and it worked. Despite a few half chances, Dallas never found a breakthrough and were even forced to play the entire seven plus minutes of injury time without Zach Loyd after he clashed heads with Rafael Marquez and had to be carried off on a stretcher.
Deep into stoppage time, a ball played over the top found Henry, he controlled with his head, held off Daniel Hernandez, collected a rebound off of a Hartman save and slotted home the second and final goal. Salazar would blow his whistle for full time only seconds later.
The Red Bulls really could not have asked for a friendlier wild card matchup. Dallas looked tired after the half hour mark, perhaps worn out after their long season and multiple competitions. Down the home stretch of the season they also clearly missed the spark that David Ferreira provided in 2010. Hopefully we'll see him back in Dallas - and back to his best - next year. It's also fair to say that Pizza Hut Park is one of the least intimidating grounds for visitors in MLS. When the Hoops needed a lift it simply wasn't there, though that's hardly the fault of the hardcore support.
To the Red Bulls' credit, they took advantage of the favorable matchup and now get the reward of playing Supporters' Shield winners Los Angeles Galaxy over two legs, beginning Sunday at 3PM at Red Bull Arena. They will have to find a way to get past Landon Donovan, David Beckham and company without Solli, Luke Rodgers (unless his knee should improve) and perhaps even McCarty. It's not an impossible task, but it's one that will require New York to elevate its game above what we saw in Frisco.