Monday, April 07, 2008

MLS Match Report 1: Red Bulls 2, Columbus Crew 0


East Rutherford, New Jersey -- A crisp, 45-degree Saturday night at Giants Stadium was the setting. The occasion? The New York Red Bulls (formerly the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, as you all know) opened their 13th Major League Soccer season with a 2-nil win over the Columbus Crew in front of 17, 119 rocking fans, who gave the match a European feel. It's nice to attend a domestic soccer match and be taken in by the noise levels and party atmosphere. Well done, Bulls fans. Keep it up, lads (and lasses)!

The Pardew's Guardian crew in the form of the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! (er, basically myself and my two 10-year-old sons, Alex and Ben), wearing our Red Bulls-issued tracksuit tops, made the 120-mile drive from our driveway in Atlantic County to "Estadio de Gigantes" in record time -- 1 hour, 50 minutes -- and entered through Gate D to scoop up our special-edition Red Bulls scarves and watch our good friend (no kidding!) Max Bretos of Fox Soccer Channel play in a charity match that also included Ethan Zohn, Shep Messing, some beautiful Hispanic ladies and Amani Toomer of New York Giants fame. Since he was due in the broadcast booth for Fox Soccer Channel, Bretos excused himself at halftime. Before he found the refuge of the locker-room showers, Bretos took time to greet Alex and Ben with a hearty hello near the tunnel. "Hey, it's the Clark boys!" an enthusiastic Max shouted, before producing a sincere wave to me near the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! (color red) Red Bulls flag tied firmly to Section 107, Seats 1-3. Messing and Zohn also chatted with the boys, who were well chuffed, and the match was more than an hour away!

There's nothing better than the 40 0r so minutes before the match -- the players are out warming up, the walking stadium vendors bring welcome Swedish Fish candy diversions right to the boys (hey, they are all sinewy muscle; the lads have set foot in a McDonald's maybe 3 times (!!) ever and avoid processed food as a matter of course, so an occasional all-sugar snack is allowed) and the real fans of the Empire Supporters Club make their way into Section 101. Their crew leader was very flexible when I asked him not only to tie the 40-foot-long banner that would cover our section below eye level so the boys could see, as well as respect the fact that the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! flag had been positioned for the better part of 2 hours.

An extremely-compelling 4-member parachute team dropped from a helicopter on to the stadium's turf to deliver the match ball, defying physics as they spiraled in from the sky. A usually-jaded New York crowd jumped to their feet, applauding the precision and acrobatic qualities on display.

Kudos also to the Red Bulls, who join the ESC in adding drums and other musical instruments to the matchday atmosphere. When New Jersey's own Claudio Reyna led the Bulls out of the tunnel as captain, the noise lifted the lid off the old park. And that theme stayed continued into the first minute of the match, when the lanky Dutchman Dave van den Bergh skidded a shot past the Columbus keeper to send home crowd into rapture. The fans didn't have to wait long for goal No. 2, as in the 8th minute Kevin Goldthwaite, the much-maligned defender who came into the team at the expense of the traded Marvell Wynne last season, got on to the end of a Juan Pablo Angel flick on in the box (via a van den Bergh corner) and crashed a goal home. At 2-nil, the Bulls could afford to return to new coach Juan Carlos Osorio's defensive gameplan and frustrate the Crew with lateral and backward passes (many of them coming from Reyna, who seems -- worringly -- to excel at the task.)

Angel missed a second-half penalty, which was won by the in-the-box endeavor by the absolutely excellent !! new Colombian signing, striker Oscar Echeverry (pictured above during the match, and spending a few minutes with Alex and Ben in the corridors of Giants Stadium after the game had ended.) In fact, Angel looked a bit off the pace. His usual movement was there, but his predatory instincts seemed to desert him on Saturday. If this team is to get over the hump and win a championship or a U.S. Open Cup trophy, Angel (and the injured Jozy Altidore, who did not play in the match) must be firing on all cylinders in order to make up for the shortcomings in the rest of the team.

Defender Jeff Parke (who collected two yellow cards and the subsequent red), midfield dynamo Seth Stammler and keeper Jon Conway -- who did not have much to do -- played solid matches for the Bulls, who put 3 points on the board in the "Pardew's Guardian (TM) Quest For 46 Points" (13 wins, 7 draws out of 30 total matches) that could position the side nicely for a run at the Eastern Conference final. Who did not play well? Other than the aforementioned Angel, Reyna must be singled out yet again for playing every pass laterally and backwards instead of providing a probing ball into the final third of the field. And, Luke Sassano looks a long stretch away from being an MLS defender.