As heated rivals D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls prepare for the second leg of their Eastern Conference playoff series tonight, both teams will look back on their first game with regrets over opportunities missed, and with hopes of discerning elusive keys for advancing.
Opportunities missed will haunt New York's Hans Backe and D.C.'s Ben Olsen. Both coaches watched their teams give away own goals. Olsen saw his opponents come out flat for a long stretch, and the most celebrated member among them never get in the game. Backe saw his opponents self implode, and finish the last 20-plus minutes a man down.
In a way, both Backe and Olsen should feel lucky to head into the second leg with a 1-1 tie. My guess is neither does.
I am not sure I can provide the keys to advancing, but let's review what we the fans have learned from the first leg. Maybe there is a hidden gem somewhere in the mix.
Okay, granted, there is not much of a coaching gem in this one. But beyond the rivalry these teams share, the backdrop to any story about this series is the impact of Hurricane Sandy.
Sandy brushed the D.C. area, causing widespread power outages for many. That, however, was nothing compared to how the storm ravaged the New Jersey and New York City areas.
United, with its second-place finish in the Eastern Conference, earned home field advantage over the Red Bulls in third. In a home-and-home soccer series, that advantage is expressed by hosting the second of the two games. That way, any extra time is on your pitch.
The Red Bulls were not ready to host a first-leg match on Nov. 3. (It is a fair question whether they will draw any appreciable numbers tonight, with a fan base that now finds itself waiting in gasoline lines for hours.)
The league asked D.C. to switch the dates and host the Nov. 3 game. United's management understood there was no other reasonable plan, and consented with the request.
Hopefully this is not something we are learning for the first time, and instead are just being reminded of the fact. Soccer is important. Real human suffering is more important.
As mentioned in the introduction to this slide show, and in numerous articles in numerous other publications, the Nov. 3 game was something of a debacle. It featured two own goals (one by a keeper), a telegraphed penalty kick and a ridiculous red card.
If this series was in previous seasons, when MLS followed European customs and weighted the away goals as the first tie breaker, tonight's game would probably be less than fan-friendly.
New York was handed (literally) a gift goal by D.C. keeper Bill Hamid. With that away goal, the Red Bulls could park the bus in the second leg. If they prevent United from putting the ball in the net, they advance. At least, it would have worked that way in previous seasons.
Now, away goals are not weighted. The teams compete for higher aggregate score, which if neither has after 180 minutes, they try for another 30. Like knock-out games, if it is still tied after an additional 30 minutes, it is on to penalty kicks.
I would argue that neither team was ready for the first game. Whether the storm had anything to do with that or not, it was a debacle of professional sports. It felt incomplete, as though we had not seen either team play like they can play. However, that debacle would have been decisive under the away goals rule, assuming New York could muster adequate bus parking capabilities.
We learned that MLS got this one right. Olsen can take comfort in that, but it is unlikely that he, or Backe, will find a gem there, either.
Olsen's roster includes few gray hairs.
All that youthful talent is a great asset for forward-thinking D.C. fans. However, it also means the kids are now dealing with very adult pressures of playoff soccer.
That side of their youthfulness was on full display in the first leg.
Hamid visually tracks a soft header and plans his jump to make the elevated keeper snag. He gets bumped while jumping. No problem. In that instance, if the keeper cannot get both hands on the ball, he just palms it over the crossbar.
Hamid tried to bring it down, on his goal line, one handed, while still off balance from the initial bump.
Right back Andy Najar gets caught on the wrong side of a New York counter. The Red Bulls were in the clear with what looked like the making of a dangerous three-on-three break. Najar, from behind, tracks down the ball carrier and fouls him. It was a smart foul.
The yellow comes out. Najar's smarts go away. He throws the ball at the referee. The yellow becomes red.
While not quite as young as the above mentioned teammates, Chris Pontius is only 25. Much like and even more so than Hamid and Najar, Pontius has been a D.C. standout this season. With a New York handball in the box on Nov. 3, it was Pontius who lined up to take the penalty.
The only way for Pontius to telegraph this kick more would have been to pull a Babe Ruth and point to the bottom, left corner. Pontius hit his target, but Red Bull keeper Luis Robles by virtue of knowing which way to dive had as easy a save as any keeper could hope for on a penalty kick that otherwise would have gone in.
Not many gems here for Olsen to use in the second leg. Backe, however, now has the luxury of facing a D.C. team without Najar, who provides solid defense and dangerous attack support up the right side.
Much to the chagrin of Red Bull fans, when their team lined up for the first leg, the New York scoring leader was not on the field.
Kenny Cooper has 18 goals this season. They were not always the prettiest goals, but when you have someone who can find a way that many times, you have to think long and hard about not starting him in the season's most important game to date.
Sebastien Le Toux, not Cooper, was the starting forward with Thierry Henry. Le Toux has one goal in 15 appearances this season. He also is appreciably faster than Cooper.
So, that must be it. Backe must have had a plan to exploit Le Toux's speed against United. Or did he? As the game unfolded, there were few runs to get behind the D.C. defenders. The Red Bulls seemed to be playing for the draw.
Even when United saw Najar sent off in the 71st minute, the Red Bulls did not press their manpower advantage. Le Toux was barely visible on the field.
Now Backe has his away draw, and seems to have the advantage in the series, especially with Najar on suspension.
But in a weird sort of way, this series would not be complete without another blast of nature. A Nor'easter is scheduled to bring cold rain and driving 50 miles per hour winds to the New York area tonight. Wet fields and strong winds can play havoc on a game plan. Backe may rue his team not taking care of business when they had the chance in Washington.
Okay, we did not definitely "learn" this from the first leg. But anyone watching that match had to sense it. Thierry Henry's last game ever is imminent.
His celebrated career with Juventus, Arsenal and Barca, as well as on the French national team, may well end in this MLS playoffs. If the Red Bulls lose tonight, that will be the end of their 2012 playoff run.
The 35-year-old Red Bull captain was not getting it done on Nov. 3. Maybe Henry was reacting to some odd non-game plan from Backe. Maybe he's got an undisclosed injury.
Maybe he was saving himself for the second leg. Older players do that sometimes. Unable to exert themselves as consistently as they could five years prior, they will play possum here and there, and hope their experience allows them to recognize more opportunity in fewer runs.
Whatever the reason, he created nothing, he displayed no pace and he even seemed to position himself more times than not in limiting spots where his numbers of touches were likely to be reduced.
No gems here for Olsen, either. There seems no way to know whether an aging Henry has the ability to light it up one more time or not. Ignore him at your peril.
But that said, the end is in sight for Henry's career, and as noted, those watching the first leg can be excused for thinking it might come this season, and maybe tonight, depending on how the Nor'easter winds blow.