The New York Red Bulls kicked off their 2011 season just as they did in 2010, with a 1-0 home win that featured a great performance from Tim Ream and a spectacular lone goal. Last year it was Joel Lindpere who opened his Red Bulls account with a beautiful volley, on Saturday Juan Agudelo scored for the first time as a professional after shrugging off a challenge from the Seattle Sounders' Leo Gonzalez and blasting in past Kasey Keller.
Seattle and New York both came into the game under considerable pressure: for the visitors, they needed a win after losing their home opener against the LA Galaxy in disappointing fashion, while Hans Backe and the Red Bulls knew that anything less than a trophy and a regular season Eastern Conference championship would be considered a disappointment, and that starting off on the right foot in front of their home fans would be important for both of those goals.
The Sounders played like a disjointed side that possesses some obvious quality but lacked a finishing touch, while the Red Bulls looked like a better version of the side they were in 2010 with some of the same failings. New York is still vulnerable at left back, which Seattle's Fredy Montero took advantage of several times in the waning minutes of the first half, and while the Red Bulls kept the ball brilliantly, they did not create nearly as many clear chances as they should have.
The center of attention was, as expected, New York's new captain Thierry Henry. However, the French striker overembellished throughout the match, taking too many touches and looking for the spectacular instead of the straightforward and effective. Most importantly, Henry wasted a ninth-minute penalty, hitting his spot-kick low but far too close to Kasey Keller, who saved the attempt comfortably.
Instead, the best players for New York were their youngsters. While Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere put in very solid performances, it was the play of Tim Ream at the back and Juan Agudelo in attack that made the difference. Ream was immense yet again, winning almost every header that came his way and relieving pressure on the rest of the backline with assured passing and strong dribbles out of defense. Agudelo was all that Henry should have been: careful and efficient in his distribution, patiently waiting for his chance to score, and composed when the chance came.
That opportunity arrived on seventy minutes, when Teemu Tainio chipped a ball over the Seattle midfield for Agudelo to chase. Bursting away from Leo Gonzalez and then bumping him off the ball, the young American striker burst into the box and completed the move with a beautiful right-footed shot past Keller to give New York a lead that they would not surrender. Seattle came forward with more urgency after going behind, but it was the Red Bulls who should have scored the match's second goal in the closing stages as they wasted several potentially dangerous counterattacks.
The win should give New York added confidence ahead of a difficult away trip to Columbus next week, which the Red Bulls will face without as many as six first-XI players due to international call-ups. For Seattle....well, get your triangle jokes ready.
The biggest shock in a fairly unexpected lineup for RBNY was definitely Greg Sutton's start in goal. Bouna Coundoul has lost Hans Backe's confidence for some reason or another (surely joining up with the Senegal team for a few friendlies should not be enough to cause this change), but while Sutton kept a clean sheet he was quite fortunate on several occasions and looked slightly nervous.
Teemu Tainio and Jan Gunnar Solli both made their Red Bulls debuts, but both did so at unexpected positions. Solli was signed as a midfielder but played at right back on Saturday, while Tainio moved into defensive midfield after playing most of his pre-season at right back. Tainio still seems a bit slight for an MLS midfield, and New York looked more dangerous after Tony Tchani replaced the anonymous Mehdi Ballouchy to add some strength and aggressive passing in the center of the park.
There have been some complaints about the relatively poor attendance at Red Bull Arena, and it was definitely below what many expected to see for First Kick. However, the club did not do nearly as much marketing of this year's opening day as it did last year, and it was also really, really cold on Saturday night, which made for a much less pleasant match experience. That said, the Red Bulls should be able to sell out the home opener, and even though the official attendance was about 21,000 the actual number of fans in the stadium looked more like 15,000-17,000.