Red Bulls' cynical play pays off
On Wednesday night, the MLS playoffs kicked off in Frisco, Texas in a poorly attended wild-card match that saw the New York Red Bulls, the 10th-best team of the regular season, bounce the fourth-best team, FC Dallas.
Although 2010 MLS Cup finalist Dallas started out as the superior team and pinned New York back deep in its own half for the first third of the game, New York recovered and managed to stretch Dallas through deft movement and tidy passing. A game short on real chances but long on shoddy defending was eventually decided when Dallas center back George John failed to properly clear his lines in the 61st minute. Standout Red Bulls winger Joel Lindpere fired off a shot from distance which was punched away by goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, recovered by Red Bulls midfielder Dane Richards, swung back into the box by Mehdi Ballouchy and skipped to the on-rushing Lindpere, who slipped it underneath Hartman, the goalkeeper not covering himself in glory on the play.
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New York went down a man after a foolhardy challenge by right back Jan Gunnar Solli in the 79th minute, when he plowed through Dallas midfield conductor Daniel Hernandez from behind. But the Red Bulls nevertheless held firm until the end, bookending the game with a 98th-minute decider, when Thierry Henry caught FC Dallas upfield and scored somewhat unconvincingly after his initial shot was blocked, forging the 2-0 final.
Although unattractive, the game was educational. Here's what we learned:
1. The postseason is too fickle to be fair
It's bad enough that a team that won less than one-third of its regular-season games has any chance at all to compete for the title. But that it was allowed to eliminate a team that had earned its stripes during the regular season on the basis of a single game is cosmically unfair. Short series favor lesser teams. Winner-take-all games are a total crapshoot. Dallas deserved better.
This game also reinforced that the regular season and what you accomplish there is largely irrelevant, so long as you place among the best half of the league and move on to the playoffs.
2. Brek Shea has outgrown MLS
Rumors of a move to England have swirled around the fourth-year, 21-year-old Dallas left winger for weeks. On the strength of his form with the U.S. national team and Wednesday night's game, it's become quite evident that Shea has nothing else to learn here. He bounded by defenders with nary a care and dominated like an overgrown child in a youth league far beneath his station. We may well have witnessed his last act in MLS for the time being.
3. FC Dallas was punished for its success
The Texas franchise tried to do things the right way. It built a soccer-specific stadium, patiently cultivated a dynamic young squad, worked well within the league's suffocating salary-cap rules and played attractive football. This resulted in a run to last year's final, and subsequent qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League. There, Dallas put up a brave fight, played its regulars and missed out on the quarterfinals only on the last day of the group stage. Its reward? A squad stretched so thin during the regular season that Dallas missed out on automatic qualification for the conference semifinals by a single point and was knocked out in this wild-card game. Teams that play in the grueling continental competition deserve more roster space than others.
4. Cynicism is working for NY
Toward the end of the season, Red Bulls coach Hans Backe preached cynicism. His team, he argued, needed to learn to concern itself less with aesthetics and more with results. "Perhaps we were a little bit naive in the beginning when we were trying to stick all the time to the kind of football that we could control the game, dictate the game," he said after his side's final regular-season game. On Wednesday, the Red Bulls patiently waited out Dallas' aggressive opening, went looking for a goal when its opponent tired and then, after going ahead, packed it in and sat behind the ball.
"They started and pressed very hard," Lindpere said after the game. "We survived the first 30 minutes and then they got tired. We knew if they kept going like that in the second half we would get our chances." Say what you will of "pragmatic football," but New York got the result it needed.
5. The conference semifinals are a farce
It isn't the league's fault that New York underperformed in the regular season and ended up slipping into the playoffs through the wild-card backdoor. But the fact remains that the bracket has become incredibly lopsided, with the four best and most expensive teams all scheduled to face each other in the Western Conference semifinals -- the Red Bulls will play the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake will play the Seattle Sounders. Regular-season champion L.A., for that matter, has been rewarded for its dominance with a grueling two-leg series with a team on the East Coast.
Due to the league's wild-card format, New York is in the West playoff bracket despite being in the Eastern Conference. Why there is a need for a crossover between the conferences is still unclear. If there must absolutely be 10 entrants into the playoffs, why can't the No. 4 and 5 seeds from each conference play each other to decide who gets to play the conference champion in the next round? At the very least, you avoid exhausting travel and the laughable Western champion of the East, or vice versa.
6. New York is good under pressure, and only when under pressure
Every office has one, that hopeless procrastinator who can't bring himself to get his work done until he's up against a deadline but somehow always manages. In MLS this year, that role is played by the Red Bulls. Central defender Tim Ream recently conceded that New York has to be in trouble to bring out its best play. "I think so," he said. "As crappy as that sounds, we could have locked [a playoff spot] up long ago. I think it says something about the team and what we can accomplish when our backs are against the wall." Luckily for the Red Bulls, they'll be feeling those cold bricks behind them every single game during the playoffs.
7. Tim Ream is a serious liability
Ream may have been impressive as a rookie last season, gotten an extended look with the national team and been anointed the next top American defender, but he's been dire in recent months. Every serious chance the Red Bulls have given up of late seems to have been at least partly to blame on Ream. Against FC Dallas, a terrible Ream clearance gave Marvin Chavez an open shot in the 14th minute and a cross Ream misread freed up Jackson for a header in the 40th. Those were Dallas' biggest chances of the night. In the playoffs, those mistakes will be punished eventually.
The New York Red Bulls will face the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals. The first leg will be played at Red Bull Arena on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ESPN3.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.