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Week 21: Real Salt Lake 1-1 New York Red Bulls

RBNY got a point and (probably) a letter from the Disciplinary Committee from their trip to Salt Lake...

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The sound you hear is the MLS Disciplinary Committee hastily assembling to view the tape of this game and hand down the suspension to Jamison Olave that will almost inevitably follow.


The incident in question occurred in the 77th minute of the New York Red Bulls road game at Real Salt Lake. Olmes Garcia had devoted considerable energy to baiting Olave throughout the game, and the two had clashed moments earlier: Garcia tried to sell a dive, leaning into Olave and pivoting extravagantly off the big man's hip to throw himself through the air. The ref didn't buy it.

Perhaps sensing, however, he was winning the war with his marker, Garcia said something to get Olave's attention. The two exchanged words on the edge of the penalty area while the game carried on without them.

Olave turned away from the discussion, and Garcia hit the deck, clutching his groin, rolling over and over and over. He completed a total of five rotations until, presumably due to dizziness, he stalled his momentum and commenced a sorrowful twitching while his teammates scrabbled and scrapped with their opponents in the customary way players show solidarity with a fallen comrade.

I don't know. I have no idea exactly what's going on.   -Jeff Cassar on the Garcia-Olave confrontation (realsaltlake.com)

Referee Mark Geiger correctly sensed there was less to it than Garcia was suggesting. Try rolling over five times while keeping your hands on your groin: it takes a degree of energy and concentration one is unlikely to muster if the priority is soothing the awful, nauseating ache of bruised testicles; indeed, it's hard to do if your priority is anything other than rolling over and over and over. So the RSL man was carded for his performance, which may save him from further punishment from the Disciplinary Committee.

Olave probably won't be so fortunate. Whatever the context, whatever the prior provocation, the tape shows this was not a ball-to-hand moment. He reached out and...well, only Garcia can say for sure what pain he suffered. There is no rule against reacting to having your scrotum grabbed, jostled, or even tickled during a game of soccer - largely because it is not an expected part of the game.


Still, Garcia's reaction - which was a brief show of surprise followed by an impressively quick-thinking push on Olave's shoulder to give him the start he needed for his roll through Rio Tinto's well-groomed pasture - suggests he was much more interested in drawing attention to the incident than any help from the physios. But his embellishment probably won't be sufficient to save Olave from a suspension.

If DisCo has any sense of consistency, it will suspend Olave for two games - the same penalty applied to Clint Dempsey's petulant thwack at Mark Bloom's man-bag earlier this season. If DisCo has any sense of context, it might take into account Garcia's persistent efforts to bait Olave, note that he initiated the confrontation leading to the incident, and note there wasn't any great force behind Olave's regrettable reaction. He was trying to make his point in a crude, but light-handed way. Perhaps that merits some leniency.


Probably not, however. The Committee ought not to be faulted if it chooses to be consistent on this point: don't lay hands on your opponent's groin. It isn't a difficult rule to comprehend or enforce. Unless DisCo loses its mind and hands down a ban greater than that given Dempsey, there should be little cause for complaint. (Though if you were to suggest Olmes Garcia is a loathsome, whining cheat, that would be as much your right as it is his to roll around on the grass of his home field whenever he pleases.)

It was an unfortunate moment for RBNY, who will likely lose a key defender for a couple of key games (ALL the remaining games are important at the moment). And it was an unfortunate moment for this game, which seemed to sag a little after the Garcia-Olave clash.

It wasn't one of our best games...but sometimes you have to get a result like that -Thierry Henry (newyorkredbulls.com)

It wasn't a great match for either team. RSL thinks its current problem is goal scoring. The team created 12 chancesin this game, but only got four on target. The one which found the net - in the 18th minute - was the result of Joao Plata executing a shot through traffic which Luis Robles likely didn't see until it was too late. The RBNY 'keeper had just scrambled to block a very similar shot from Javier Morales, and was unfortunate that his defenders decided they'd like to find out whether Plata could do any better.

There were plenty of Red Bulls in the box - since they were technically still defending a corner - but all were content to let Plata set up for the shot, and if you challenge an opponent to thread the needle, you can't be too aggrieved if he accepts the invitation.

As is often the case, RBNY appeared to find greater traction in the game once it was a goal down. In this instance, it might have had a lot to with RSL preferring to defend the lead, let the Red Bulls run wide and try to cross into the box. If your opponents are happy to wear themselves out with futile tactics, why not let them go for it?

When the only man consistently up front is 5' 8" Bradley Wright-Phillips, crossing is not the Red Bulls' best attacking option. RBNY's wide players - Eric Alexander, Chris Duvall, Ambroise Oyongo, and Roy Miller - combined for 12 unsuccessful crosses according to MLS's statistics for the game. The stats do not credit any Red Bull with a successful cross for the match (while at the same time suggesting the team had a 17% success rate with crosses - maybe that includes corners).

I could see that Nick Rimando could not see where the ball was, and I just finished it.   -Thierry Henry(newyorkredbulls.com)

The Red Bulls' equalizer did come from work out wide, but it was more about Thierry Henry bailing out a stifled attack than any triumph for the formation or tactical plan. In the 57th minute, Ambroise Oyongo cut inside, drew four RSL defenders to him, and slipped a pass down the line for Bradley Wright-Phillips. BWP cut a pass to the six-yard box, where Tim Cahill was set up with his back to goal and two markers.

Cahill took a heavy first touch, which took him and his defenders further away from goal. He recovered, but had few options other than to lay the ball off for Thierry Henry, who was running in from the central midfield position he increasingly favors.

At this moment, Henry had limited options. Cahill's momentum carried him outside the area. BWP was offside and irrelevant. Eric Alexander was lurking wide right. There were four defenders and a goalkeeper in front of RBNY's captain. He could dribble straight into RSL's back line, push the ball backwards to allow some Red Bulls to get back in attacking positions, or he could shoot.

He chose the latter: a first-time shot to the far corner of goal, using the crowd of defenders to screen the ball from Nick Rimando. It was a very similar goal to the one scored by RSL: a well-placed shot taking advantage of the positioning of the defense.

We are close to the point in the season where you have to stop saying a point's good on the road, but tonight, it's a good point.   -Mike Petke (newyorkredbulls.com)

But it was fortunate. If Cahill's pass had found Eric Alexander instead of Henry, the ball likely would have been recycled back to the defense. If it had found Oyongo, he'd probably have put his head down and dribbled straight into Nat Borchers. If Dax McCarty had got hold of it, he'd have launched the ball into the Utah sky, threatening pedestrians and parked cars outside the stadium, but not the score of the game going on inside Rio Tinto.

Not for the first - or last - time, RBNY got a point because its captain is a very good player.

To be fair, the Red Bulls might have taken three points from the match. Mike Petke's tactical intransigence is an understandable source of dismay to RBNY fans who have watched the team labor under the apparent conviction that all will be well as soon as the coach figures out where exactly Eric Alexander ought to be playing.

But Petke made use of the friendly with Arsenal to test the combination of Roy Miller at left back and Ambroise Oyongo in left midfield. It looked pretty good, and he stuck with it for this game. It paid off: Oyongo was a constant threat and sparked the move which brought RBNY's equalizer.


He should have had a goal too. In the 36th minute, Henry pushed a long through-ball into RSL's penalty area, and Oyongo's pace was sufficient to scare Nick Rimando into an uncharacteristic blunder. The RSL 'keeper reached the ball first, but must have had his mind on Oyongo, because he didn't gather it and the RBNY rookie found himself with a chance to shoot on an open goal. It was a narrow angle and he scuffed his shot wide, but the opportunity only existed because of his relentless hustle.

He was also instrumental in protecting the point. In the 71st minute, Chris Schuler got on the end of a corner and put the ball into Oyongo's knees (he was covering the near post on the set piece). Ibrahim Sekagya cleared the rebound, and RBNY survived the last 20 minutes.

Oyongo looks set for a run in left midfield - it would be extraordinary if Petke decides to back away from the player he has coaxed into the limelight over the past few games. Assuming Lloyd Sam returns to the right wing (he was suspended for this game), RBNY will have some of the better wide players in the league for the foreseeable future.

We weren't quite focused enough...they played it quick, caught us out of shape, and then we were looking back at it   -Jeff Cassar (bigapplesoccer.com)

This would be particularly exciting if the team had a true target man up front. But it does not. RSL's defense was unpicked by RBNY's positional fluidity: BWP cutting in from the left (i.e. playing the Henry role of season's past), Cahill filling in at center forward (where BWP should have been), and Henry making a late run to the box from midfield (Cahill's signature move). That and superlative finish saved the game.

Overall, however, a match which saw neither BWP nor Cahill register a single shot - on or off target - speaks to the team's continued difficulty in unlocking the attacking potential in its roster.

We've got some tired guys.   -Mike Petke (newyorkredbulls.com)

The situation isn't helped by Petke's continued diffidence with substitutions. Faced with a close game, he once again appeared unable to figure out how to bring any positive change from the bench.

Ruben Bover was swapped in for Alexander in the 79th minute, an attacking move in principle but also a confusing one. Last season, it was suggested Bover was being converted from a wide player to a central midfielder. But his scant appearances this year have largely been on the flanks. He would seem to be tagged as the next Alexander: a player asked to bring a central midfielder's disposition to the wide areas.

Peguy Luyindula, still arguably the team's best player at holding possession in midfield, was a stoppage-time substitute who only came on because Henry was clearly in need of a rest.

It worked: RBNY took a point out of Salt Lake that it probably should not have got. The draw may be frustrating in the wider context of this season (the Red Bulls are now one point outside the playoff places in the Eastern Conference), but it was a very good result in the context of a match where the visitors often looked second best.

The Eastern Conference table is Petke's game-management conundrum writ large. He trusts his starting lineup to the point he cannot bring himself to make a change unless the failure is so clear it is almost impossible to reverse. In the East, RBNY is one of five, or six (if Chicago gets a win over Columbus in its next match), even seven (if Houston beats DC this weekend), teams with a solid shot at making the playoffs.

Do I think we outplayed them in the second half? No, but I certainly don't think that they outplayed us.   -Mike Petke(newyorkredbulls.com)

Slipping from fifth to sixth in the East is not a reason to panic. RBNY has 13 games remaining and eight of them will be at home. Petke has managed to uncover promising new talent in Oyongo and Duvall, and has presided over BWP's emergence as the league's premier goal scorer and Henry's re-invention as MLS's best creative midfielder.

These exceptional performances are combining for below-average results: 1.19 points per game is seventh-worst in the league. But most of the East is poor.

New England just got its first points since May; Toronto has won once in its last eight games; Columbus has won two in a row, but had only one victory in the 16 matches prior to the current mini-streak; Philadelphia is slowly recovering from winning one game in its first 11 of 2014; Chicago has drawn 12 out of 20; Houston is winless in eight; and Montreal has dropped five straight.

Only KC and DC are good. RBNY is still in a wide open race for third place in the East. To panic now would be to risk losing what little the Red Bulls have gained. The Supporters' Shield is a distant fantasy, but the playoffs - which we are repeatedly told are the point of the entire season - are very much alive.

All of which is to say, the longed-for big-name signing or tactical overhaul that might return this team to league's elite probably isn't coming. Not just because Papa Red Bull may not want to spend the money, but also because the team profited from Petke's safety-first management style last year, and the current set-up is proving adequate to keep pace with the rest of the dismal Eastern Conference.