Sometimes, the best thing you can say about a match is that it is over. This is perhaps the case for New York Red Bulls' fans pondering the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal in Houston. The game finished with the Red Bulls teetering: a man down, the lead surrendered to a 92nd minute equalizer, and the Dynamo eagerly massing for one last tilt at victory. The final whistle was a mercy for the visitors, an unwelcome interruption for the hosts.
This match was an abrupt return to the hardscrabble necessity of grinding out a result for the Red Bulls, who had finished their regular season on a high note. The Supporters' Shield was secured with a 3-0 win over the Dynamo in Houston, followed by the imperious, triumphant, trophy-clinching, 5-2 trouncing of Chicago Fire at Red Bull Arena. For 45 minutes, this first foray into the postseason as a bona fide cup winner (What's that? It's not a cup, it's a shield? You say potato...) played out as a comforting reprise of New York's glorious regular season run-in.
The Dynamo are familiar opponents -- this was the fourth time they have played the Red Bulls this season, and shortly we will see them for a fifth, decisive, matchup. Twice this year, Mike Petke has led his team to BBVA Compass Stadium, and twice emerged with three points. No points were available this time around, just the satisfaction of taking an advantage back to Harrison for the second leg, but the game plan was unchanged. In the preceding skirmishes on Houston's home ground, Petke favored a counter-attacking approach, challenging the Dynamo to do what they could with abundant possession, while banking on his players to capitalize on sporadic opportunities. It has worked a treat: the Red Bulls outscored Houston by seven goals to one over the previous two visits, and they were two goals up by half time this time around.
The first goal of this Eastern Conference playoff semifinal was an exquisite demonstration of the poise, savvy and technique aggregated within New York's squad. The Red Bulls had been weathering the usual storm of high-pressing orange shirts, until Peguy Luyindula initiated a decisive riposte in the 22nd minute. He received the ball in an isolated position, on the right flank, with three Dynamo players swarming toward him, but a delightful cross-field pass evaded the pressure and found Jonny Steele, hovering centrally with his back to goal. Two touches from Steele sent the ball back to Dax McCarty, who immediately switched play to David Carney on the left wing. From Carney, the ball zipped toward Thierry Henry, whose off the ball movement simultaneously kept his marker at bay and allowed him to adjust for a one-touch cross to the top of the six yard box. Tim Cahill, lurking malevolently in the space between Eric Brunner and Corey Ashe, nodded in. From Luyindula's pass to Cahill's header, it took six players eight touches and 13 seconds to find the net. The orange-clad Dynamo were, appropriately, little more than traffic cones.
Ten minutes later, Eric Alexander had a second goal for New York from a more direct route: McCarty hammered a pass up the field, Cahill collected and slipped a delicately weighted pass behind the defense for Alexander to chase. With all due respect to his goal against Chicago on that wonderful night in Harrison, Alexander is not the man one wants to see bearing down on the opposition 'keeper with the ball at his feet. The Red Bulls have a quick, clinical right winger in their ranks -- his name is Lloyd Sam -- but Alexander's strengths are more winning possession and making the low risk passes required to keep opponents at bay. He is also, apparently, an excellent mimic. Few who saw it will forget the Red Bulls' third goal against the Fire in the regular season finale: you remember "the Lloyd Sam chop". Sam dribbled at his marker, cut the ball from his right foot to his left, and curled an unstoppable shot to the top corner of the far side of the net. It was beautiful.
Alexander's goal echoed Sam's insofar as he also took an exaggerated cut inside to his left foot, baiting Eric Brunner into a lunge at the memory of where the ball had been. Houston's 'keeper, Tally Hall, knew a shot was coming, but appeared to expect a reprise of Sam's effort to the far side of goal -- Alexander snuck a daisy-cutter inside the near post. The Lloyd Sam chop is fast becoming a signature move for the Red Bulls. If Alexander can add knowledge of making balloon animals to his talent for impressions, he's got a bright future at children's parties when its time to hang up his boots.
There is a downside to the rope-a-dope tactic: whether by accident or design, you are on the ropes. There will be those who wish to ascribe what happened in the second half to a perceived complacency amongst the Red Bulls, a near-mystical affinity for playoff soccer amongst the Dynamo, or New York fans' favorite scapegoat, the Curse of Caricola. Perhaps. But before reaching for the old tropes, consider a simpler explanation: it was about time Houston scored a goal against us. The two previous trips to BBVA Compass Stadium had yielded 35 shots from Houston, while New York managed just 15. The telling statistic is shots on target: the Red Bulls had 12, the Dynamo just seven. Certainly, much of Houston's impotence on those occasions is explained by a canny and determined New York defense, but it also owed much to shabby finishing on the part of the men in orange. If Will Bruin had been in anything like the form that puts him on the fringes of his national team, he'd have scored three or four goals against New York this year. To date, he has none.
However, the most representative example of Houston's baffling haplessness when playing the Red Bulls this year has little to do with Bruin, but rather features Ricardo Clark. He is, for want of a better word, the dynamo of this Houston team, marshaling the center of the park to ensure possession is channeled to his more creative colleagues on the flanks. He also has a knack for scoring goals. During last month's 3-0 loss to New York, just before the score line tipped irretrievably in the Red Bulls' favor, Clark had the sort of chance he usually puts away. Panic at the back saw Brandon Barklage hastily shank a clearance to Clark's feet, just outside the penalty area -- but the ensuing shot was drilled into a prostrate Will Bruin rather than on target.
Depending on your point of view, it is either apposite or ironic that Clark should have received an almost identical chance in this match. As before, shortly after half time, Houston rattled the New York backline's composure, drawing a hurried clearance from the left back. The player was Carney, not Barklage, but the outcome was identical: ball sliced to Clark, lurking just outside the box. This time, he put his shot on target, and past Luis Robles.
A single goal does not necessarily change the course of a game, particularly when New York's plan for this match was more about outscoring their opponents than shutting them down completely. Unfortunately, it is a game plan dependent on having the full complement of players on the pitch, and the Red Bulls were a man down after 65 minutes.
Jamison Olave's red card has brought a flurry of excoriating adjectives from the MLS commentariat. Words like "reckless" and "scything" have been repeated with a frequency rarely seen outside seminars on labor intensive farming methods. It was a late tackle. Olave is a big man. The combination of the two looks bad, especially from referee Ricardo Salazar's vantage point -- he was behind the play, so would presumably simply have seen Omar Cummings disappear beneath a lunging Olave.
It was not the worst tackle ever perpetrated by a player in MLS, arguably not even the worst tackle perpetrated this week (I'm still not sure how Clint Dempsey's clumsy attempt to hurdle Clint Irwin resulted in a yellow for the victim rather than the perpetrator). While it is true that worse tackles often go unpunished in MLS, it doesn't make Olave's foul any less worthy of a red card: it was tactical foul and a late tackle from behind, a combination which would tempt even a lenient referee. Salazar is not a particularly lenient referee. However, if Connor Lade had executed this tackle, we wouldn't be hearing quite the same fuss. Big men will knock smaller men over -- it's physics, not barbarism.
Inevitably, Olave's dismissal turned the game in Houston's favor. Once you are outnumbered, you don't give up possession, it is taken from you. The Red Bulls were under siege. Credit Mike Petke, however, for some bold substitutions. Once Olave was gone, the defense needed to be reshuffled. Off came Jonny Steele for Brandon Barklage, a predictable defender for midfielder switch. Then things got interesting: first, Petke called Luyindula in to allow Lloyd Sam on to the field; then, in the 83rd minute, the defensively astute Alexander was yanked for Bradley Wright-Phillips, a striker. Petke doubled down on his counter-attacking game plan when his back was against the wall. The Red Bulls' head coach is often praised for his guts, his stomach for the fight, but this match proved his fortitude is not intestinal -- it's testicular.
The gambit almost paid off. The Red Bulls were two minutes of stoppage time away from hanging on for the win, when Cummings pounced on a fortuitous rebound to level the match for Houston in the 92nd minute. It was unfortunate, but it was not a meltdown. Nor would it have been a catastrophe if Ibrahim Sekagya's clumsy last-minute challenge on Cummings had been deemed a penalty. Once Olave left the field, New York appeared destined for a loss: beating Houston in Houston is not easy, the Red Bulls just made it look that way on their previous visits.
As such, the result is perhaps a welcome return to reality for both fans and players. The New York Red Bulls were the best in MLS this year, but they are not unbeatable. Certainly not unbeatable playing shorthanded and away from home. A draw is a creditable result to bring back from a road trip in the playoffs. Yes, it means Petke and the team are once again facing a must-win game at Red Bull Arena, without Olave, and against the Eastern Conference's postseason champs of the last two years. To progress, New York will have to do it the hard way. On the bright side, the hard way is the only way this club knows.