Photo by ISIphotos.com
Two days have passed, heart rates have returned to normal and all remaining remnants of smoke bombs and nerve-racking suspense have faded into the memory banks, and Saturday’s Western Conference final victory by the Red Bulls over Real Salt Lake still brings a chill as you think about a game not many will forget.
There has been plenty said about the Red Bulls victory and I wanted to go over some of it, while also providing some details of that chilly day in Sandy, Utah. You saw two teams battle bravely, chances missed by inches, free kicks taken with smoke bombs making the 18-yard box look like a war zone, and some of the most exciting drama MLS has ever seen.
No, it wasn’t beautiful. There were no offensive clinics put on, but the beautiful thing about The Beautiful Game is that there is value and beauty in all its forms. The footage from Saturday’s West final won’t be showing in an art gallery any time soon, but you also won’t have an easy time duplicating its drama, suspense and emotion.
Here are some observations and notes from Saturday’s Western Conference final:
The first order of business is this notion that REal Salt Lake played this amazing 90 minutes of beautiful soccer while the REd Bulls played the role of unskilled hacks bunkering for the entire game. That notion is as laughable as it is false.
The game broke down this way. Real Salt Lake started fast, the Red Bulls gained their footing about 20 minutes into the game (after injured midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic left the match) and had as much of the game, if not more of it from the 20th minute to the 65th minute. From that point RSL started to get more possession, pushed numbers forward and created the bulk of its chances as the Red Bulls hunkered down for an incredible final 20 minutes.
Did Real Salt Lake pull off this beautiful display of soccer? Let me start by saying that RSL is a talented and exciting team that should be good for a while. All that said, RSL’s attacking approach through most of the first 60 to 65 minutes consisted of booting long balls to Yura Movsisyan in the hope that he would be able to beat somebody and work the magic that has been working so well for the past month.
When did Route One soccer become the beautiful game? You’ve got me on that one, but the revisionist historians have taken that last 20 minutes of frenetic, everything including the kitchen sink soccer by RSL and spread it over the full 90 minutes. That was never the case. If anything, the Red Bulls were the team more interested in passing, combining and trying to create in the middle portion of the match. RSL got caught in a rut of long ball that helped create some chances, and draw some free kicks, but produced very little in the way of truly stylish soccer.
RSL did have longer stretches of possession, but the creativity of players such as Javier Morales and Clint Mathis went underutilized as RSL spent far too long waiting for Movsisyan to make something happen. It is certainly interesting that this has gone largely ignored. You would think that criticizing a losing team for what it didn’t do what make more sense than critizing a winning team for what it did do.
As for Movsisyan, his combination of strength, speed and skill is impressive, but the penchant for diving was out of control on Saturday. Perhaps his recent hot streak had him thinking he would get every call, but he hit the ground entirely too often. He needs to learn how to pick his spots.
And not to get too critical about Jason Kreis’ lineup decision but it is a fair question to ask why he wouldn’t simply start Robbie Findley alongside Movsisyan if the team’s attack was going to focus almost entirely on long balls. The Movsisyan-Findley tandem created a boat-load of chances when these teams met at Giants Stadium, with only poor finishing preventing RSL from running away with a game they wound up losing.
The Red Bulls certainly began shutting things down a bit too early, resorting to booting everything away at about the 65th minute mark, but it seems a bit misguided to criticize a road team for doing everything it could to protect a second-half lead. Style points are for gymnastics and Dancing With the Stars. Playoff soccer is about winning and the result. RSL gave its all, but did not score a goal.
And yes, the Red Bulls won ugly, but it is an interesting dynamic at play when such a clear-cut underdog, a real-deal Cinderella Story is criticized instead of embraced. Could it be the fact that its a New York team? I’m really trying to think of the last underdog to make a deep playoff run in any sport and not become a favorite of the neutral fan.
Now, onto the actual match-day highlights:
Juan Carlos Osorio and Dema Kovalenko finally talked face-to-face and it looks like the beef between the two has been squashed. The two spoke before Saturday’s game and cleared the air. After the game, Kovalenko walked down the hallway outside the locker rooms and crossed paths with Osorio again. The two shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. One Red Bulls player was walking by during this scene, and not knowing that the two had resolved their differences earlier in the day, joked that he wasn’t sure if he was going to have to break up a fight or not.
If you read any number of Dema Kovalenko features last week, you might have heard that Kovalenko has purchased a dog. No, not a big, mean dog, but a small toy dog. An RSL source tells me the dog recently suffered a broken leg. No word on whether Ronnie O’Brien had been in the Salt Lake City area recently.
Osorio gave Jason Kreis a big hug after the final whistle on Saturday. The two coaches have developed a strong friendship, with Osorio serving as a bit of a mentor for his younger counterpart. For all the drama of Saturday’s game, you could tell by the smiles on their faces as they shook hands after the match that there the two coaches like and respect each other.
RSL owner Dave Checketts has had his share of sporting successes and failures (Knick fans can insert jokes here), but you could definitely tell that Saturday night’s loss was a tough one for him. He stood with misty red eyes as he gave Osorio a heart-felt congratulatory handshake after the match.
While there were plenty of RSL attacking players who could be criticized for a variety of misses, defenders Chris Wingert and Nat Borchers deserve plenty of credit for what were strong performances for both. They each played a role in containing Red Bulls standouts Juan Pablo Angel and Dane Richards.
RSL fans will eventually wake up this off-season and realize that their team is in pretty good shape. With young standouts in every area of the field, and a designated player slot that still hasn’t been used, RSL will head into 2009 looking like a serious contender to challenge Houston as the top team in the Western Conference (the regular season Western Conference, not the bizarro New York is now in the West Western Conference).
Jorge Rojas was very gracious after the match, acknowledging that while he wasn’t happy to not have played in recent matches, that he respect Osorio’s decision to go with other players and couldn’t argue with the fact that Luke Sassano and Sinisa Ubiparipovic had been playing very well lately. When Rojas came off the bench and gave a strong and honest 70 minutes of hard work and sharp passes (including one beauty that Dane Richards should have finished) it became clear that he hadn’t let his recent benching cause him to lose focus.
One of the funnier scenes after the match was watching Dave Van Den Bergh break into a version of John Wolyniec’s take on the Michael Jackson Thriller dance. No word yet on what goal celebrations they might break out for MLS Cup.
For those wondering where the Red Bulls recent defensive form stands in MLS playoff history, the Red Bulls’ consecutive road shutouts in the playoffs marked only the second time in league history that feat had been accomplished. The 1998 Chicago Fire also posted consecutive road shutouts on its way to an MLS Cup title.
That’s all for now. Be sure to tune in the rest of this week for extended coverage of MLS Cup. I will be heading to California on Wednesday and will be looking forward to meeting some West Coast SBI Mafia members.
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