Friday, June 24, 2011

Sounders 4 Red Bulls 2: The Fine Art of Self-Destruction

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This one was always going to be difficult. With the Red Bulls missing both starting forwards (Henry and Rodgers), their main striking option off the bench (Agudelo) and the central defensive tandem of Marquez and Ream, getting the full three points in Seattle was a tall order. Factor in a crowd of 46,505 and relatively short rest after Sunday's wild 3-3 slug fest in Portland and even a draw may have been a lot to ask.

Yet, remarkably, at one point in the second half of Thursday night's game the Red Bulls found themselves level at 2-2, with a chance to push on and get the full three points. Having started brightly in the first ten minutes, RBNY went behind to a pair of (what else?) set piece goals by Erik Friberg and Osvaldo Alonso - both the result of lazy defending at the top of the 18 yard box and statuesque goalkeeping by Greg Sutton. After just 12 minutes it looked as if RBNY could be in for an epic thrashing. But slowly they got back into the game, and a Dane Richards strike that surprised Kasey Keller and somehow found its way into the back of the Seattle goal gave New York hope heading into the locker room at half time.

In a wide-open second half that featured numerous chances for both sides, it was the Red Bulls who struck first, thanks to a clever nutmeg by Jan Gunnar Solli that led to a Zach Scott own goal. All square through an hour. But the Sounders were not to be denied. Once again they hit RBNY in their Achilles heel - the set piece. Second half sub Roger Levesque made a strong run to the near post run on a corner kick and, surrounded by white shirts, managed to put a powerful header on goal. Sutton, once again rooted to the spot, could only flap a hand at the ball as it passed him by. Were we in for a second consecutive 3-3 game?

No. The Red Bulls began pushing again for an equalizer, but you could see the energy had been sapped from the team. With about 15 minutes remaining, Sutton dithered on a backpass from Solli, had his pocket picked by Levesque and could only watch in horror as the ball was casually rolled in to make it 4-2. Game, set, match. If you'd like to relive what may well turn out to be the goalkeeping blunder of the season and is certainly one of the worst in club history, click on the video above. For Sutton, it capped a second consecutive poor performance. Surely Hans Backe has no choice now but to hand the goalkeeping duties back to Bouna Coundoul.

Of equal - perhaps greater - concern is the Red Bulls' remarkable and continued vulnerability on set pieces. The weakness was apparent even before Ream and Marquez left on Gold Cup duty, but it has now reached the point of absurdity. RBNY fans have now begun to hold their breath each time the opposition is awarded a free kick or corner, expecting the worst. Backe must either change his zonal marking system or find players who can properly implement it. Rule one for beating the Red Bulls: win as many set piece opportunities as you can. Sooner or later - probably sooner - they will break. [Edit: According to this article on the Red Bulls did try a different system on Thursday, abandoning zonal marking. Clearly they still have some work to do.]

RBNY is now off to Chicago to play the Fire on Sunday. Henry should be back in the squad, though Luke Rodgers will still be out with a foot injury. Hang in there folks - the Gold Cup is almost over. Whether the return of Marquez, Ream and Agudelo will do anything to cure what ails this team at the moment, however, is an open question.
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