Monday, November 08, 2010

RBNY 2 - 3 SJE: Farewell to the MLS Cup

by Dick Mac

Enough days and soccer matches have passed since last Thursday night, that I can now try to type something about the debacle that was Red Bull New York's first round exit from the MLS playoffs at the hands of the San Jose Earthquakes.

Thursday night arrived with the Red Bulls enjoying a one-goal advantage over the Quakes, having won the away match the previous weekend at San Jose. The match-up was a home and away event with the winner decided on total goals scored. Returning home to Red Bull Arena made our one-goal lead appear insurmountable for any opponent. After all, our performance at home has been amazing.

When we acquired both Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, midway through the season, we became nearly undefeatable. We easily climbed up the Eastern Division table and ended the season as the number one team in the East.

Our line-up featured Henry and team captain Juan Pablo Angel at the top, with Marquez leading the charge from the middle. Joining the Mexican captain in the midfield were Estonian stud Joel Lindpere, speedster Dane Richards whose form had improved so much as to make him arguably the best goal-scorer we'd seen in some time, and newest arrival Mehdi Ballouchy, the Moroccan player who had very little time to get acclimated to his new team. Our patchwork defense turned-out to be rather rock-solid with veteran Chris Albright joining the team from New England, longtime Bull Carlos Mendes at center-back with rookie of the year hopeful Tim Ream, and new Bull Ray Miller on the other wing. Bouna Condoul in goal rounded-out what might have been the best line-up ever to grace our field.

With Henry and Angel, both prolific goal scoring strikers, playing at the front, we scored with ease. The only matches we didn't win seemed to be the matches in which the two wily veterans did not start the game together; and most of those were draws.

During the first leg in San Jose, Henry remained in New York to nurse an ailing knee. Still, Angel and the rest of the squad brought home a hard-earned victory. It seemed obvious that Henry would make an appearance in the return match. Sure, he wouldn't start, but like other matches he would come in for the second-half.

Coach Hans Backe, perhaps the best manager in all of MLS this season, eventually learned that playing Angel alone up top was futile, because the opponents would simply double- and triple-team him, rendering him impotent as a goal-scoring threat. Brilliantly, Backe started seventeen-year-old Juan Agudelo up top with Angel and the young player ran circles around the visiting quakes. Sadly, he could not find the net.

Things got bad early-on with San Jose scoring a sixth-minute goal and taking that score into the locker room at half-time.

The Red Bulls looked scattered and confused throughout the first half, and it became clear that Henry would have to join Angel up top for the second half. Shortly after the interval, he began warming-up on the sidelines and now it was just a matter of time before he would join Angel and make some magic.

The clock seemed to race by with Henry warming-up.

In the 76th minute, Bobby Convey scored his second goal of the match to put San Jose ahead 2-1 in the aggregate. We would now have to score at least one goal to bring the score even, and hope to win in overtime.

Henry was still warming-up when, in the 78th minute, Angel scored a beauty to get us on the board, but more importantly drew us even at 2 in the aggregate. Only twelve more minutes to score a winner and we were on our way to the Eastern Division championship match. This will be no problem once Henry gets on the field.

But where is Henry? 79 minuets. 80 minutes. No Henry.

81 minutes and we look like we are falling apart. 82 minutes, 83 minutes and we are losing. Where is Henry?

In the EIGHTY-FOURTH minute, Backe subs-out Aguedelo for Henry, but the mission is already lost. Six minutes is not enough time for even a king to change the tide of a match; and the French King could not save this lost cause.

I sat in stunned silence.

Everyone (except San Jose, it seems) talked convincingly of a NY v LA final with Beckham, Donovan, Henry and Angel putting MLS on the television map and potentially into the hearts and minds of more Americans than ever before.

It was not to be.

It is now four days later.

Colorado and San Jose will play each to determine the Eastern champion -- a true testament to the absurdity of the MLS playoff structure: no team from the East is playing in the Eastern conference final. Stupidity.

In the West, a much more exciting match-up is in store for us with the surging FC Dallas playing at Los Angeles in an attempt to beat Supporters Shield winners the Galaxy.

So Beckham and Donovan are still playing; but, Henry and Angel are out.

It appears that Angel is not only out, but he appears to be over and done with New York. The Red Bulls seem to be treating him quite shabbily after his remarkable years of service.

No new contract is forthcoming, and Angel has played this season with both Henry and Marquez being paid much more than him. I assumed, and perhaps Angel assumed, that management would come forward with a generous contract extension that would keep the prolific goal scorer here in New York.

I know nothing about the negotiations. I have no idea if RBNY has made an offer, or if Angel has refused an offer. I only know that since he arrived in MLS, nobody has scored more goals than Juan Pablo Angel. I am certain that Thierry Henry will never score as many goals, nor will Rafa Marquez. They are not goal scorers, they are soccer geniuses who make everyone around them better than they ever thought they could be.

Passing-up the opportunity to have Angel and Henry up top for an entire season would be a huge mistake. Red Bulls management should do whatever it takes, pay whatever they must, to keep Henry and Angel together. Together, they could potentially become the greatest goal-scoring threat ever seen in the league.

Henry alone will be very entertaining, and since he is my all-time favorite athlete of all time, I am thrilled to be able to watch him live. But Henry and Angel is a dream come true in MLS and I see no good reason why it shouldn't happen.

If RBNY management or Angel himself can shed some light on this, I might be able to accept it; but everything is achingly secretive with neither side admitting to anything.

So, I can live with the unhappiness of my team crashing-out of the playoffs; but I am ill-at-ease, at best, with the notion that the team is allowing Angel to slip away when we seem to be on the verge of a potential dynasty.

Well . . . wait 'til next year!

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