Monday, March 12, 2012

Bulls Back in Familiar Form to Start New Season

Fresh hopes for a new start, coupled with memories of postseason success last year at Dallas, may have inspired confidence with the kickoff to our seventeenth season. But such hopes were quickly dashed as the season starts with a road loss that suggests little has changed since last year.  
During the offseason, rather than pursue the creative playmaker the team has been lacking, Erik Solér chose to address a defense that conceded 44 goals in 34 games last year. Such focus failed to show dividends on opening day in Big D, as the heroics of Yonkers native and Fordham alum Ryan Meara, playing his first professional match in goal, weren’t enough to compensate for the poor play of the backline of Miller, Keel, Holgersson and Solli, who looked collectively ill prepared if not outright incompetent. Loose marking and wide gaps between defenders gave Dallas plenty of space to attack, and were it not for the bravery of Meara and a bit of luck, the scoreline could easily have been far worse. They weren’t helped by the holding midfield duo of Tainio and McCarty.
So it was back to club-in-crisis mode by the 11th minute, when Tim Ream’s replacement, Holgersson, bungled a clearance, gifting Dallas a goal and restoring the cynical pessimism that’s become such a familiar state of mind to the masochists who still care. After a Dallas counterattack was stopped by a Tainio dangerous kick to the face of Villar (the Bulls fortunate the referee didn’t simply play an advantage as three Dallas attackers came sprinting with at a lonely Meara), new signing Markus Holgersson bungled a cross seven yards out, then Dax McCarty failed to clear, off the set piece. 
Some set piece trickery from Thierry Henry almost leveled the score in the 44th minute when the captain took a quick freekick as the home side were preoccupied with setting up their wall. Reminiscent of his famous goal for Arsenal against Chelsea in 2004, Henry was unfortunate to hit the post as Dallas held on to their one goal lead at the break.
A horrible backpass from Roy Miller lost possession at the hour mark, allowing Perez and Villar to slice past Holgersson and Keel, Villar chipping over Meara for the second Dallas goal. Solli slipped on a long ball played to Rodriguez a dozen minutes later, and neither Keel nor Holgersson could cover Perez, who shot straight at Meara from point-blank range.
Given the success he enjoyed when he used to call Pizza Hut Park home, Kenny Cooper was a surprise on the bench, Juan Agudelo getting the starting nod from Hans Backe instead. The veteran’s presence paid off as Henry played a lovely ball behind the Dallas backline for Cooper to chip Kevin Hartman as the two collided in the 77th minute, Cooper’s first goal for New York coming at the expense of the team he scored 40 times for in 90 appearances.

New York kept up the pressure for the remainder of the contest but were unable to level the score and earn a point, Dallas content to defend and counterattack, exploiting the gaps the Bulls never were able to close in the back, to chew up the clock if not put the game out of reach for the visitors. Richards, Agudelo and Lindpere were all unable to create any real threats throughout the match. Backe brought on Palsson and Ballouchy, a shocking if desperate use of all three substitutes, but the Bulls came up short on the day to the other team with a bull in their badge.
Perhaps no one was more frustrated with the team’s performance than the captain, whose post-match disgust has already caused many, like Andrew Das in The New York Times Goal Blog, to question his attitude: Henry tried “to feed people” all day, but what’s frustrating to those who know his play well through the years is that there doesn’t seem anyone on this squad capable of feeding him. While some will say his lack of enthusiasm for the interview betrays a bad attitude, it is his refusal to accept defeat that means his leadership will be crucial if the league’s highest payroll is to justify the return of the club’s Scandinavian management after last season’s disappointment. Henry was tireless, dropping deep into midfield to accommodate for the lack of a creative playmaker. But is this what we should expect from one of the game’s greatest ever finishers, to track back and start attacks? If today is any indication, he’s willing to do this hard work and capable of setting up teammates, but one fears Henry’s best talents will go unused and that his displeasure with the duty or his teammate’s lack of quality and desire will result in his dismay becoming frequent.
The seventeenth season starts in familiar fashion then, and one hopes the captain’s frustration, Henry’s desperate need to win, will inspire positive change in the rest of the squad. Will New York need to grind out gutsy efforts to compete or is the team simply holding out for a 3rd Designated Player to answer fans' prayers for a spark of creativity in the middle of the park? The over-reliance on an out-of-position, if battling and brilliant, Henry doesn’t appear to be a winning recipe. Maybe the missing Marquez will help once he’s served his suspension. Or maybe this kind of performance is simply what we should expect from the squad assembled by Solér. It’s hard to recall the free-flowing possession football the Bulls played at the start of last season, when New York seemed the class of the league.  They seemed anything but by season’s end. The cynical soccer of last year fostered cynicism among supporters and we pick up where we left off, with disappointment. There’s surely a long way to go before panic is justified, but one can only hope what we saw on day one in Dallas is just a work-in-progress, far from a finished product, or we’re finished at the start.

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