Cynical soccer, as Red Bulls coach Hans Backe describes it, isn’t supposed to be pretty.
During the majority of the Red Bulls’ 2-0 wild card victory over FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park on Wednesday night, Backe’s description was apt. New York rarely controlled the run of play for meaningful stretches and generally stuck to game plan of withstanding the FCD pressure and obstructing every pass and cross that could feed the opposing attack.
Still, a game plan executed to perfection can still create soccer worth seeing – just as it did in the 61st minute by way of a Joel Lindpere go-ahead goal. FCD ‘keeper Kevin Hartman parried a Lindpere shot wide and towards Dane Richards, who smartly backheeled the ball parallel to the penalty area up to Mehdi Ballouchy. Ballouchy, who had entered the match only moments earlier for his first meaningful MLS action since mid-September, took care of the rest.
“Dane got the ball up high on the right and I was yelling right behind him ‘Play me back the ball’ and I decided (to pass low) instead of crossing, because I think most fullbacks are expecting the block off of the cross but forget about the pass on the ground,” said Ballouchy. “The back four stepped up and opened up Joel and he was able to finish. We were fortunate to get the first goal against the run of play.”
It came about quickly and came together perfectly, with Lindpere crediting the Morocccan midfielder in creating the Red Bulls’ best scoring chance of the game.
“Mehdi gave me a great ball,” said Lindpere. “I was timing my run very perfectly and maybe I didn’t hit (it) so hard but it was difficult to reach for the goalie.”
Thierry Henry’s stoppage-time strike lacked the suave of Lindpere’s goal, but the Red Bulls team captain finished that ball following 90-plus minutes of keeping FCD midfielder Daniel Hernandez in check. Henry was charged with keeping Hernandez out of the picture on the FCD offensive end, with Backe admitting that the Red Bulls’ game plan hinged on his French striker’s results.
“We said before the game was the key has to be to close down Hernandez’s distribution,” said Backe. “We put Thierry on him and set with the back four and midfield just to cover the space for the pace guys in Dallas, the front three guys, and give them as little space as possible in closing down Hernandez. That worked quite well, because (Igo) Ihemelu or (George) John has to drive out and had to do the distribution. They went wide sometimes, but we were solid in the middle.”
That solid performance left New York standing at the final whistle with a two-goal victory and two games against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference bracket now added to the schedule. It wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t always telegenic.
But, as Backe sees it, that just wouldn’t be the Red Bulls’ cynical style these days.
“We have played decent football,” said Backe. “I think we’re at the right time. Perhaps close to our peak.”
Empty Net. New York now has four wins in their past six matches between the regular season and postseason, with ‘keeper Frank Rost playing a prominent role in each victory. The German shot stopper has accrued clean sheets in each of the club’s last five wins dating back to New York’s prior visit to Pizza Hut Park in September. While he certainly played a role in keeping opposing offenses out of the New York net, Rost acknowledges that his side’s seeming ability to score often makes his job a little easier.
“We shoot a goal in every match if we get no goal,” said Rost. “Maybe the players have this now in the blood.”
Game of Chance. FCD created twice as many scoring chances as the Red Bulls on Wednesday, but never quite cracked the combination that would make the Red Bulls back line sweat. The numbers paint a picture favoring the Dallas attack, but Backe didn’t feel the pressure outside of a first-half header by Jackson that went for naught.
“I don’t think it was that many chances,” said Backe. “It had one good header or close, but otherwise, I can’t really find a free run or a 100-percent scoring chance. Some half chances, but not the really big one.”
Looking Ahead. Now that New York has dispatched of the 2010 MLS Cup runners-up in the do-or-die wild card round, they can focus their efforts on preparing for their home-and-home semifinal series against the Supporters Shield winners in Los Angeles.
Henry recognizes that the path through the Galaxy won’t be easy, but admits that his side’s form will prepare them better than any self-esteem derived from their recent success.
“The confidence level doesn’t mean anything in the playoffs,” said Henry. “We know it won’t be easy, but don’t get me wrong -- We are in a better situation now the way we are playing, mentally. The team is much stronger because we’re playing as a team. Everyone’s going to say LA against the Red Bulls is going to be a big game, but they are the favorites. So we’ll try to cause an upset.”