Ever played Temple Run?
It's one of those simple games designed for a small screen, and basically involves steering a frantic runner away from some very angry monkeys. There may be more to it than that, but I've never got past the part about evading the monkeys. It reminds me of Mike Petke's tenure as head coach of the New York Red Bulls.
RBNY's history is Temple Run: desperately trying to outrun enraged simian antagonists, and never quite succeeding. The result: this club has a hell of a lot of monkeys on its back.
Who knows how long Petke will be in charge of this team, but he has made it his business to stop playing the game - RBNY wasn't very good at it - and confront the monkeys. He knocked off the big one last season: the never-won-a-major-trophy monkey. But the team is still giving a piggy-back ride to a great many unwanted apes, and Petke has been picking away at them obsessively like a...well, like a monkey picking fleas off itself.
OK, that metaphor has outlived its usefulness. Point is: to get this team to where it wants to be, Petke doesn't just have to beat the teams lining up against his, he has to beat history as well. This season has been frustrating, but it has included a few milestones, like beating New England on the road and this game - RBNY's first ever win in CONCACAF Champions League.
The CONCACAF regional club championship has had a variety of names and formats and an even broader spectrum of winners. For example, the Red Bulls' opponents in this match, CD FAS, won CONCACAF Champions' Cup (as it was then known) in 1979.
Knock the achievement all you like, but that is a legitimate regional title and we don't have anything like it. So it was nice of fate to deal RBNY a decent hand for once: the team gets to say its first-ever CONCACAF Champions League win was over a bona fide former champion of CONCACAF.
In the final analysis, this goes down as a comfortable win over earnest but outmatched opponents. I don't know how good FAS was in 1979 (it did beat UANL Tigres on its way to the final that year), but Salvadoran soccer is at a low ebb right now. Last year, the country suffered a match-fixing scandal and the outcome was a slew of life-bans which removed many of the nation's senior internationals from its player pool.
So FAS is representative of a national soccer program in transition and a domestic league carrying most of the burden of the recovery. It had already lost twice to Montreal Impact in earlier group stage matches, and it was beaten even more comfortably by RBNY.
This is not to say FAS couldn't have got a better result. Past iterations of the Red Bulls might have struggled to manage the frustration of a game in which they had a lot of possession but precious little luck with finishing, and in which the referee appeared happy to let any contact not resulting in amputation go uncalled.
Indeed, we've seen this sort of game go awry a few times this year. RBNY controlled possession, charged up the field frequently and with purpose, got into scoring positions and, more often than not, didn't score.
Tim Cahill had a particularly luckless night: miscuing a regulation far-post header straight down into the ground instead of on target, scoring a goal that was called back for offside, and finishing his evening with a point-blank, uncontested header which he put straight at the 'keeper.
Saer Sene didn't have quite as many chances (he had four attempts on goal to Cahill's seven), but this was largely because he's clearly still not 100% fit and struggled to reach the crosses that were continually coming his way.
Meanwhile, the referee called an even-handed game, which is to say he let both sides take chunks out of each other, and the only yellow card issued was to Tim Cahill for finally (it was the 84th minute) protesting too vigorously about the level of on-field violence being permitted. RBNY might have had a penalty when Ambroise Oyongo was charged off the ball a little too enthusiastically; the team might equally have been a man down when Lloyd Sam up-ended an opponent with what looked a lot like a two-footed tackle, at least from the stands.
Neither incident affected the referee's carefree spirit, and even Cahill's protests weren't sufficient to shake his conviction that what soccer is lacking is little bit more of rugby's rough and tumble physicality.
In fairness, both teams simply got on with the task at hand. There wasn't a great deal of writhing or pleading. The players played the game the referee was willing to let them play: one punctuated by hard fouls.
FAS had some cause for hope throughout. The team has picked up a new player - Ghanaian Kevin Issahaku. He is quick, and regularly outpaced the RBNY back line, though he was also infrequently able to catch up with the passes his teammates lobbed forward.
For the Red Bulls, Ryan Meara's first competitive outing since the nightmare in Nassau County was encouraging. He started out a little nervous, perhaps - there was a bobbled catch and fumbled save - but grew steadily more confident, once he figured out his defense couldn't be trusted to keep up with Issahaku and adjusted his game accordingly.
Petke promised a lineup that would balance experience with some new faces, and did not disappoint. The surprise was Cahill's inclusion from the start. This may have been the plan for some time, since Cahill left RBNY's last MLS match surprisingly early (he was subbed in the 67th minute). Further surprise, Lloyd Sam started as well. And the left side of the lineup was Roy Miller and Ambroise Oyongo, a tandem that wouldn't be out of place in a league match.
Peguy Luyindula in central midfield was a sight for sore eyes, hoarding possession and offering at the least the threat of an attacking option that wasn't from the flanks. He also had a pretty frustrating night: his successful passes were largely to the wide men, where FAS allowed plenty of space, but his efforts to get through-balls past defenders in the middle of the field were largely stymied.
But sometimes its is simply the existence of another option that keeps an opponent from adjusting effectively. FAS should have reorganized to counter RBNY's obvious tactic of going wide and letting Oyongo and Sam carry the ball into the final third. It didn't, perhaps in part because Luyindula was doing enough to remind Los Tigres of his ability to ping a pass down the middle if he had just a little bit more space than he was being given.
FAS stuck to its preferred formation, and Petke gratefully accepted the opportunity to stick the plan he'd drawn up after watching this opponent fail twice against Montreal.
It was a good night, barring the slight disappointment that comes with a comfortable victory that could (and probably should) have been by four, five or six goals instead of two.
Sene, in his first start for RBNY, may have missed a lot of chances, but he did the most important work of the evening: he scored early. His goal in the 11th minute (assisted by a cushioned header from Cahill) helped the Red Bulls to stay focused on scoring goals rather than lamenting their increasing ill fortune.
The second was a long time coming, and only arrived because Sam got fed up with watching cross after cross get fumbled by his hexed strikers and took it upon himself to start running at the defense and creating his own chances. His reward for his 70th minute strike was to be substituted four minutes later, reinforcing the suspicion that Petke left his big guns on the field longer than he might otherwise because he really wanted to get a lot of goals out of this game.
The goals didn't come in the quantity the overall performance merited, but everything else worked out just fine.
At the back, Armando, finally allowed to do his job in an environment where the referees don't regard him as a sociopath, played the Olave role: directing the defense, cleaning up when a pass or opposing player got loose. He was whistled for one foul all night (though, as mentioned, the referee could hardly have been more relaxed if he'd spent the night on a chaise longue in the center circle).
New man, Damien Perrinelle, coped. Forgotten man, Richard Eckersley, played well. He conceded no penalties, made no egregious errors of any sort, and executed one precision interception in the six-yard box, where any mistake would likely have led to goal (he had a striker right behind him, and if he'd sliced his clearance it would have been in the net).
We even got to see a little bit of Eric Stevenson (he's alive!) and an even smaller amount of Marius Obekop (also alive!). Neither disgraced himself.
And Eric Alexander held everything together from the center of midfield. He's a good player when he's in what would seem to be his best position. (In fairness, he's not a bad player out wide, he's just not as exciting as other options.) And his signature move - the wrong pass or a slightly mistimed pass that finds its target but kills momentum - is less apparent when he's not as frequently involved in the attack.
If this is the lineup Petke wants to carry him through this CCL group stage, it has at least earned another shot. The next game against L'Impact in Montreal, is the toughest on the four-game CCL schedule. It will certainly be played against a full-strength MLS team eager to prove it is a great deal better than its league record this season suggests.
Montreal in Montreal represents a big step up in quality of opponent. RBNY hasn't dominated a game like it did against FAS since it went to DC back in April and lost 1-0. DC is better now, and FAS may be better when the Red Bulls visit El Salvador in September. But the focus is now on L'Impact.
Petke's first foray into CCL shows he wasn't just paying lip-service to the competition when he said he was taking it seriously. No, it is not the club's priority. But if he was willing to keep Cahill on the pitch for almost the full 90, start Sam, Miller, Alexander and Oyongo, and only mix in the true reserves when the game was safely won, it suggests Petke wanted not just a win, but a big one.
You can't always get what you want, but it was not for lack of effort. The realities of this club's commercial priorities limit Petke's ability to switch away from MLS and focus on a competition where prospects might be brighter. He put out the strongest lineup he could without being accused of jeopardizing the team's playoff ambitions, and kept that team out there for as long as he dared.
The result was disappointing under the circumstances, but also entirely adequate. It is to be hoped we see similar ambition reflected by the lineup in Montreal, and a similar result.