The Monday Hangover: Life is good at top
There was a moment during New York’s 2-0 victory over D.C.
United on Saturday afternoon when it looked like the Red Bulls were about to
capitulate. United had besieged the New York goal all afternoon, and early in
the second half, Bouna Coundoul was forced into yet another trapeze-artist
save, tipping a Clyde Simms shot wide.
The play had developed out of a miscommunication at the back
and a poor clearance from Roy Miller that went straight to Simms. After the chance
was thwarted, Coundoul and the Red Bulls defense all looked at each other
questioningly: “What was that all about?” their eyes and body language asked (Watch it here).
But for the first time in many years with this underachieving,
overpromising New York franchise, there was no panic, no “uh-oh,” no “well,
here we go again.” Instead, rookie Tim Ream and veteran Mike Petke discussed
where the breakdown occurred, Miller acknowledged his mistake, and Coundoul got
up and prepared to defend the corner kick. Amazingly, this New York side actually
looked like they belonged at the top of the table.
Conventional wisdom is Clintonesquely waffly on the relative
benefits of being the king. Sometimes, it’s a burden to bear, what with tending
to all those serfs and being the target of every Tom, Dick and Lancelot with a
coat of arms and a goblet of ambition. Other times, lording over a dominion
eases the way.
For the two MLS clubs donning the conference thrones right
now, New York and the LA Galaxy, it’s definitely the latter.
The LA Galaxy, kings of MLS currently, reigning over the
Western Conference has actually gotten easier as time has gone on. With each
game—each win—the undefeated Galaxy seem more and more confident.
In Saturday’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia, they played with the
kind of casual arrogance pros have when they join a pick-up game. MLS leading
scorer Edson Buddle looks so at ease, he could be wearing Hefner’s smoking
jacket out there. The defense is playing like a second midfield, bombing
forward—hello, Mr. DeLaGarza—while still getting the job done at the back.
It’s flowing, majestic, and unbeatable to this point. And just
think: The Galaxy have been doing it all with Landon Donovan still in neutral.
Imagine what it will look like when he shifts into high gear.
Meanwhile, New York are anything but majestic. They look more
like the rogue cousin who suddenly winds up the heir apparent. It’s “ugly,” certainly
compared to the Galaxy’s fluid style. It’s based on power up top, a compact
box-to-box central midfield pairing, the unpredictability of Dane Richards, and
the organized lines of the defense. Plus, of course, Coundoul’s acrobatic
And yet, the effect is the same. Despite New York’s being outplayed
by United in the first half, I never once doubted the Red Bulls’ ability to
earn the three points. Sure, they gave up chances, but only one of them—Simms’
free header in the area—was a legitimately good one. Everything else seemed
within coach Hans Backe’s plan, or at least acceptable.
On a hot afternoon in D.C., this New York team exuded the kind
of regal confidence in their strategy: Withstand the pressure, and eventually,
the chances would come. From a fans’ perspective, it was ugly; but from a
purist’s standpoint, it was also beautiful. Regal, almost.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Floppy-mopped Jack
McInerney is a star in the making. He’s got a ways to go, but his inherent
talent is plainly visible. Watch him make a play, like the one he made on
Saturday night to get his first-ever pro goal. Here’s a 17-year-old kid,
directing the veteran Fred about where he wants the ball, pointing to space in
front of him, demanding the right pass.
Then he shows tremendous composure with his first touch, away
from Gregg Berhalter, and even better patience, waiting for Donovan Ricketts to
commit before burying his shot. How many other young American strikers have
that innate ability right now?
What makes me most comfortable with tagging “Jack Mac” a star
of the future is the fact that Peter Nowak is his coach. If anyone knows how to
handle a young talent, it’s Nowak. Remember, he’s the only pro coach ever to
get the best out of Freddy Adu.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Kansas City Wizards coach Peter
Vermes’ anticipation of that inevitable bad moment, when things will stop going
well. “There is going to be adversity—injuries, go down a goal, a guy gets
thrown out,” he told me. “We don’t know how the team will react.”
Well, now he knows. They obviously didn’t react the way he
would’ve hoped. Already down a goal, the Wizards went down a man in the 33rd
minute when Davy Arnaud was sent off for his foul on Houston’s Pat Onstad.
What’s interesting is not only to see how the team reacted—KC
eventually lost 3-0—but also how Vermes himself reacted. He seems to have been
as brutally honest as ever. “They came out pretty physical and ready to play,” he
said after the game. “We didn’t match it at times, and other times we did.”
And the red card?
“The red card was a little ridiculous,” Vermes said. “It
changes the game completely.”
Red All Over
Speaking of red cards, the referees went to their back pocket
five times this past weekend. Were there really that many ejectionable
offenses? Yes and no.
Here’s my take.
Arnaud, Kansas City: If Onstad were not a goalkeeper and
Arnaud’s cleats had connected with a field player’s ankle, would the red card
have come out? Doubt it.
O’Rourke, Columbus: A misguided tackle in a spot on the field
and a time in the game that didn’t call for it. This was a second yellow, and
Dube, New England: He wasn’t a particularly hard foul, but he
showed the bottom of his cleats. That’s enough for me.
Niouky, New England: I’ll let TV announcer Jay Heaps speak for
me: “That’s a red card, two-footed from behind,” he said on the broadcast.
Miglioranzi, Philadelphia: Reckless, at best. When will
players learn that jumping into any tackle with the bottom of their cleats
showing is a no-brainer red card?