Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Back from Harrisburg

I'm back from my road-trip to Harrisburg, PA. By now, you've all heard the news: the Red Bulls have been eliminated from U.S. Open Cup competition by Danny Cepero and the USL-2 Harrisburg City Islanders. In the absence of the Big Viper, YSC, whoshotsam, and the regular Viper's Nest crowd, my wife and I took up the mantle to provide video comments of the day. These were big shoes to fill, and we gave it our best. Click the video above for pre-match comments. Full-time comments here, and AET comments here. My wife, the lovely and talented Mrs. Homebrew, apologizes for mis-speaking in the pre-match video concerning the result of Sunday's Seattle/Philly match. She was fully aware that Philadelphia won, but suffered from stage fright when the camera was recording and gave the win to Seattle. Also, my apologies for the audio in the post-match video, they were cranking celebratory music over their PA system, and I do get a bit drowned out.

Since the match was not streamed or televised, I thought I'd share my observations of the match with our readers.

The Skyline Sports Complex is a nice, friendly, park-like atmosphere in which to watch a game. The people are friendly, the concessions were inexpensive. Along with a minor league baseball park adjacent to the pitch, there were batting cages, a video arcade, and even a miniature golf course. Definitely a family-oriented place. During the entire match, they pumped music onto the field--it was kind of amusing, but also distracting. I felt like I was being forced to listen to "Addicted to the 80's" while watching the match. Blondie, the J. Geils Band, and the Violent Femmes were standout selections from last night's DJ.

Before the first ball was kicked, one couldn't help but notice the formation on the pitch. Andy Boyens, fresh from a month in South Africa where he did not play a minute with the New Zealand squad, was in the back alongside captain, Mike Petke, who has basically been demoted from the first team. Crazier still, our midfield lined up, from left to right, like this: Agudelo, Nielsen, Hall, Garcia. I've read that Nielsen has played center-mid before, but Agudelo and Hall were completely out of position here.

And it showed. While we were the better team in the first half, and were frequently in the final third of the pitch, it never felt like we were dominating possession. Hall did not look comfortable at all in the defensive, holding midfielder role. Nielsen looked best when he ran outside, to his more natural position. To sum up, our midfield was not in sync, and it appeared to be largely attributable to the lineup and formation Coach Backe put on the pitch.

As the match wore on into the second half, the game started to open up. Both sides took numerous shots. HCI looked stronger and stronger, creating some frightening chances in the final 15 minutes, while the Red Bulls just looked weaker and wearier. It got so bad that, in extra time, Andrew Boyens cramped up so severely he was moved up to a withdrawn forward position. So much for fitness.

In the end, of course, HCI got their goal on a furious series of shots that saw Greg Sutton make one diving save and another, from the ground at full stretch. That second rebound was knocked back out to Dominic Oppong, who was able to put it past Mike Petke and into the net.

Red Bull fans are left to interpret last night's match. The most glaring detail of last night was the lineup and bench. With our midfielders almost entirely out of position, and a bench only four players deep, clearly, Coach Backe made the decision that he was not going to start his first team--not one player who started in Kansas City started in Harrisburg. Considering that the first team just played 90 minutes in 90-degree heat and endured two plane trips in the past few days, I won't be too harsh about this decision.

Obviously, Coach Backe took his reserves, and a few of his younger, fitter First Teamers, and decided that we had to do it with that team. We would certainly have been in a better position to put this game away if we'd had Ubi, Lindpere, and Angel on the bench. But, now that Angel was starting to show signs of returning to his excellent form before getting injured in pre-season, did we really want to sit him on a 6-hour round-trip bus ride, three days prior to putting him on a plane to Colorado, to sit on the bench just in case we needed him?

I've heard the arguments, not entirely unpersuasive, that we should have taken this tournament more seriously. I would have liked to see it too, but I will also put this out there: In pre-season, when Red Bull management, players, or fans were asked what the goal for this season should be in the shadow of our terrible 2009, the answer was nearly unanimous: Make the Playoffs. That was it. No one said, "Win the U.S. Open Cup." The goal--perhaps the MANDATE--to Coach Backe this season is: Make the Playoffs.

So, with that in mind, while I'm very disappointed in the Red Bulls' performance last night, I can understand how we ended up with the team that took the pitch. Hand-in-hand with that, though, is this: there are no more diversions from league play--no more fixture congestion, no more Open Cup play, no more reasons to play musical chairs with our lineup. There are no more excuses and only one goal: Make the Playoffs.
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