Up for the Cup

November, 5, 2010

On a raw, rainy November day nothing cheers the soul like going to a football match. Well, at least that's what I told myself driving from Connecticut to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey on Thursday afternoon. And you know what? I was right.

I went to an MLS playoff game and a good old-fashioned blood and thunder FA Cup tie broke out: end-to-end action, near misses, great saves, and a tremendous atmosphere generated by 22,839 fans who sounded double that number in the wonderful facility that became the Red Bulls new home this season.

Unfortunately for the non-stop singing and cheering red clad hordes doing a passable impression of the Kop behind one of the goals, their Red Bulls were unexpectedly upended 3-1 by the San Jose Earthquakes and eliminated from the MLS Cup playoffs.

Last Saturday, the Red Bulls had dominated the first leg in San Jose, but only came away with a 1-0 win. On Thursday night, head coach Hans Backe's men gave up a crucial early goal and it was well and truly game on.

The Quakes Bobby Convey channeled his inner Gareth Barry, scored two goals and set up the clinching third goal headed home by MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski in the 81st minute. Along the way, Rafa Marquez sprayed passes of Barcelona quality all over the field and the young Red Bulls players responded to his calm leadership. Red Bulls rookies Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo are far from the finished product, but on the evidence of last night's game, Major League Soccer would be well advised to invest in these two budding starlets and allow Marquez to mentor them for a while and not let them wash up in Norway or Denmark as plenty of other young American talent has done in the recent past.

New stadium construction and bringing in high-caliber designated players from Europe and South America has been a shrewd policy, but now MLS needs to invest once again in American talent. Clearly, the Red Bulls could use a goalkeeper. How good would it be to see Tim Howard back in the land of Tony Soprano at the start of next MLS season? I venture that he would sell more tickets than Thierry Henry.

In his short time in New York, the French legend has made a big impression. Alas, a right knee injury only allowed Henry a fleeting cameo appearance against San Jose, although enough to blow a gilt-edged chance to send the game into overtime. But it's obvious why he has embraced MLS. Anyone playing in Red Bull Arena would think they were playing in Europe.

Perhaps it was due to the copious quantities of the owner's energy drink on hand that the crowd was so amped up. But the fans looked like any other soccer crazed loonies from around the world letting loose trying to lift their team in a big game. And I've a feeling Henry shares that sentiment.

But this was San Jose coach Frank Yallop's night. Sitting in the press box a few rows behind the San Jose bench, it was easy to see how the Quakes had found the belief to travel across country and spoil the league's dream match-up of a Los Angeles Galaxy-Red Bulls MLS Cup final. From enthusiastically cheering for the young girl who gave a beautiful rendition of the national anthem before the kick-off to the celebration at the final whistle, it was clear that this Quakes team marches to the beat of its well-organized and well-mannered Yallop.

Standing outside the San Jose locker room after the game, Yallop told the small throng of reporters gathered around him: "That was a great game to watch, although my heart was fluttering a little bit." I know how he felt. On a cold night, it was a thrill to watch a compelling, exciting game that sent a chill down the spine at the sense that yes, soccer is gaining traction in America.



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