How did it happen?
That’s question is on everyone’s lips following Saturday’s game between the Revs and Red Bulls. How could the Revs play so well in the first half, then have such an uninspired second half that they blew both their lead and their man advantage? This may not be the answer the New England fan base is looking for, but all the credit belongs to the Red Bulls for orchestrating a very impressive comeback.
For the Revs, the first half appeared to be a continuation of their 3-0 win over Colorado. They were full of energy, and had a number of good chances near the start of the game, finally getting a well-deserved 20th minute goal on a header by Charlie Davies. More chances would follow, if not as prime as the earlier ones. Overall, the Revs fully deserved their 1-0 lead at half’s end.
By contrast, the Red Bulls’ first half was nothing to write home about, featuring lackluster performances by several of their players, most notably left back Roy Miller, center back Matt Miazga (the 19-year-old), and, surprisingly, veteran center back Ibrahim Sekagya.
On Davies’ goal, Miller was badly beaten by Teal Bunbury, giving him ample space to serve the ball across to Charlie Davies’ head. Miazga, though he was only two yards from Davies as he scored, had his back to him. He probably could have prevented the goal if he had been in good defensive position, but I’m betting he didn’t even know Davies was there. He capped that flub by getting red-carded in first-half extra time (though this wake-up call may have been a blessing in disguise for the Red Bulls).
Sekagya made so many unforced errors in the first half he looked only half-awake. After passing the ball mindlessly out of bounds in the 2nd minute, he made his biggest goof by taking Davies down in the penalty area. By all rights, this should have resulted in a penalty for the Revs. In a stroke of luck for the defender, it didn’t – and poor Charlie even got a yellow card for simulation.
Just two minutes later, Sekagya inexplicably pushed the ball over his end line for a Rev corner. In the 20th minute, it was he who deflected Bunbury’s cross straight to Davies’s head (just the sort of bad luck that happens when you’re playing poorly). Add on his lazy marking of Kelyn Rowe in the 12th minute, his mindless out-of-bounds pass in the 24th minute, and his baffling and embarrassing slip and fall in the 38th – well, you just can’t teach this kind of incompetence.
All this changed, however, in the second half, when he staunchly and reliably anchored a three-man defensive back line. His individual turnaround can be taken more or less as a reflection of the second-half transformation in Red Bulls team play.
Even before the first half ended, the Red Bulls perked up and created some good scoring chances. Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry, joined by wingers Ambroise Oyongo and Lloyd Sam, were able to run behind the Revs defense several times, with their best chance coming in the 43rd minute, when only by the skin of his teeth was Jose Goncalves able to push the ball over the end line to keep Wright-Phillips from scoring. Most of New York’s chances resulted from their taking advantage of what Paul Mariner calls the Revs’ “high-line defense.”
Looking for the off-side trap is intrinsically risky because of the speed and experience on the Red Bulls’ offensive line. Color commentator Paul Mariner cautioned against the high-line defense a half-dozen times during the first half and another four times during the halftime break. I’m with him!
Interestingly, coach Jay Heaps feels otherwise. In his halftime interview, he even disputed that they play a high-line defense. He conceded that the defense pulls way up, but said they will recognize when they need to drop back. Well, A.J. Soares apparently didn’t get the memo on this.
He was well upfield – past the center circle into the Revs’ attacking half – when the play sequence began that would lead to Wright-Phillips’ game-winning goal (his 18th on the season). Soares’ recovery was slowed when he stumbled and fell, but even after he regained his feet he showed very little urgency, running at about three-quarters speed to catch Wright-Phillips and arriving so late he was easily wrong-footed by Wright-Phillips just before the shot. This is just the type of mischance Mariner has in mind in harping against excessive reliance on a high back line.
There were good reasons why the Red Bulls were able to completely change the tenor of the game in the second half. The first is that, bluntly, the Revs don’t have the personnel to match the Red Bulls, man for man. The second was psychological. The Red Bulls had to come out of the locker room embarrassed by their first-half performance and itching to redeem themselves. Simply put, they have too many experienced and gifted players to get shown up like that without recourse.
They were obviously under the gun, down both a goal and a man, but competitive athletes will do their damnedest to rise to these challenges. The Red Bulls did precisely that, playing the second half apparently oblivious to their nominal disadvantage. And once McCarty sank that early-in-the-half (47th minute) goal, the psychological advantage swung completely to their side.
On the flip side, the Revs – coming off their barn-burner against Colorado, in the lead, and a man up – seem to have underestimated the precariousness of their 1-0 lead. They never pulled it together effectively after the tying goal, and, after the Red Bulls took the lead, they were sunk.
Thierry Henry’s spectacular slide tackles in the 83rd and 86th minutes (dispossessing Kevin Alston, then Jose Goncalves) showcase his enormous skill set. The second of these tackles nearly resulted in a goal when Peguy Luyindula’s shot bounced off the post. As I mentioned in my previous column, you almost always see something new from Henry.
I have always enjoyed watching Dax McCarty play, but I have never seen him play better than in this game. His goal was exquisite, and his control of the flow of play, especially in the second half while his team was playing a man down, was something to behold. He was dominant and – as most would agree – man of the match.
I hope the two weeks rest will do the Revs good.