Friday, April 27, 2007

Red Bull Defense Does Dallas

John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Paolo Maldini, Rafael Marquez and Fabio Cannavaro have one thing in common: None of them play for the Red Bull. Heck, Jimmy Conrad and Oguchi Onyewu aren't part of Bruce Arena's squad. And while Ronald Waterreus is playing well, 14 saves total in four matches, an average of 3.6 saves per game, is not exactly Brad Freidel-like, standing-on-your-head dominance. Yet, the Red Bull recorded a Major League Soccer-record fourth-straight clean sheet to open a season in last night's 1-nil victory over FC Dallas at Extra Cheese and Double Anchovies Park in Texas.

So, absent superstar defenders (Todd Dunivant, Hunter Freeman, Jeff Parke and Carlos Mendes are playing exceptionally, we'd vote all four onto the MLS All-Star Team, but even the most fanatical RBNY supporter would hesitate before arguing they are world-class players) and Petr Cech-style brilliance between the sticks, how are the Red Bull doing it? Is it the weather? Voodoo? Copious amounts of a certain energy drink with suspect origins and dubious medicinal value?

Sometimes the simplest minds hit upon the most elusive truths and last night's MLS Primetime Thursday telecast featured the following exchange (paraphrasing because we're too lazy to check the DVR, but we swear to Pele Almighty it was along these lines, and we DID NOT get anyone liquored up before misquoting him):

Eric Wynalda: "Look how deep Claudio is playing. The Red Bulls paid Designated Player money to get this guy and look how far back in the field he's setting up. It's like he's a defender, not a part of the offense."

Tommy Smyth: "Oi teenk dat's dee pwoint. Ee's back dair 'elpin' and dey 'aven't been scored on in TREE GAMES!"

Sure and Begorrah, we teenk Tommy may be onto something. Bruce Arena has the Red Bull defending as unit, with not only the goalkeeper and Back Four tasked with keeping the ball out of the net, but Reyna, Stammler, Kovalenko, Van den Bergh, Richards and Altidore -- all of them -- responsible for 1) pressuring the ball and 2) maintaining the defensive shape as a T-E-A-M. And so far, the results have been astounding, as Dunivant and Freeman continued to stifle any attacks from the flanks while Mendes and Parke (with a few exceptions more attributable to positive play by Carlos Ruiz, Kenny Cooper and Ramon Nunez than any glaring errors on their part) kept the middle of the pitch relatively traffic-free.

Wynalda was indeed correct -- c'mon haters, he ain't all bad (YouTube) -- Claudio was playing way, way deep, contradicting pregame prognostications he would move to the top of the midfield diamond in place of the red-card suspended Clint Mathis. If anything, it was Dema who spearheaded the attack up the middle, while the Red Bull concentrated most of their offensive forays through Van den Bergh and Richards on the wings, before whipping in crosses to Jozy. Given Arena's stubborn nature and terrific early results, this is the system the Red Bull will be playing, with minor adjustments along the way due to player availability (Angel's eventual inclusion, the return of The Cletus).

Quick hits on the match:

The Night of the Hunter: Congrats to Hunter Freeman, who returned to his old stompin' grounds and promptly stomped fellow Lone Star-Stater Kenny Cooper by scoring the lone goal of the match. It's always fun when the local kid shines in front of family and friends, especially when it's one of the good guys.

Punch-Drunk Love: Despite being too young to legally drink, 17-year-old Jozy Altidore is indeed the object of many obsessions, namely, every fullback in Major League Soccer wants to punch him, kick him, pull him and trip him. To his credit, Jozy took it like a man, and despite not scoring, did a good job as the target player up front.

Rumble Fish: This is in no way a call to violence, but rather a rhetorical, metaphorical expression of frustration: Someone needs to smack Carlos Ruiz. "El Pescadito" spent more time flapping around on the deck than the extras from The Perfect Storm. Enough. Play soccer and stop trying to bait the Ref. Sheesh.

Little Caesar: After missing one game due to injury and largely playing a supporting role in last week's victory over Houston, Claudio Reyna reasserted himself in Dallas, vociferously demanding the ball in space and castigating teammates he deemed not up to snuff. The glare he gave Van den Bergh after the Big Dutchman didn't properly (in Claudio's view) run onto a pass, was exceeded only by the dismissive head-shake employed after a heavy through-ball (again, in Claudio's view) missed the RBNY captain.

Broadcast News: MLS Primetime Thursday's coverage was pretty good, including Wynalda's personalizing Reyna's performance and demeanor. On the aforementioned through-ball which failed to hit Claudio in stride, Wynalda added (again paraphrasing, lazy not yellow journalism): "Oh, man, I remember learning that lesson. If it isn't right to Claudio you'll hear it." Commentary and analysis of American soccer broadcasts is overly critical in our view, but one pet peeve of ours is apparently becoming a key component of the ESPN offering, so we can bite our tongue (or stifle our keyboard, whatever) no longer. This tracking of the variable heights and speeds of crosses is asinine. Wynalda slammed one cross via the snazzy graphic element because, "that one could've come down with snow on it" or some such snarky slam. Check out the comparatively high and slow cross from Zidane to Henry (YouTube) which booked France into the 2006 World Cup Final. It's not how high or how fast a cross gets there, it's that it arrives at the same time as your teammate, and in the right spot.

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