The 20,000 plus fans in attendance--marking the seventh straight time Rio Tinto Stadium has sold out--should have been excited on July 30, 2014. It was a great opportunity for RSL. Seattle, the team RSL is chasing, squandered three points which meant the claret and cobalt had a chance to inch closer to the conference leader Sounders.
After a few minutes of playing tiki-taka across the park, RSL was even able to switch the point of attack, keeping the Red Bulls back line honest. Even Jamison Olave, the Red Bulls starting central defender--and former RSL defensive stalwart--had trouble man-marking speedy RSL forward Joao Plata leading up to RSL's first and only goal of the night in a 1-1 draw.
Looking back at how the first goal built up, the sell-out crowd must have liked what it saw from RSL in the first 20 minutes. The claret and cobalt kept possession in tight spaces, the passes from one RSL player to another were crisp and precise, and the team was able to pass and move off-the-ball in triangle patterns up through the middle of the field--while wing defenders manipulated spaces in the Red Bulls' back line creating even more problems for New York.
All of these off-ball movements by players enable Plata to get forward in games--this particular sequence was no exception. Tony Beltran played a nice diagonal ball into the path of midfielder Luke Mulholland, who arced a switching ball skyward towards defender Chris Wingert, who had obfuscated his defensive spot for one that was more attacking.
Wingert then sent a short through pass into the path of an onrushing Plata, who took a touch with his outside right foot and bent the ball around Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles, sending it swirling into the net.
“He’s just deadly right now. Most of his shots are on target, and tonight was no exception. He’s hungry, he wants to keep scoring," RSL head coach Jeff Cassar said post-game.
RSL wasn't done. Again, a switching ball found the foot of an RSL player--this time it was an onrushing Chris Wingert, who had moved forward from his spot at left back to make an attacking run. His shot was rare--he's only scored once--but the ball squirted past Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles and just wide of the far post.
Two shots for RSL--and nearly two goals in the first half had to have frustrated New York. If Olave is the man he once was at Real Salt Lake it didn't show the first 45 minutes. RSL sent wing defenders on long attacking runs into Olave's space, it sent midfielders on long attacking runs into Olave's space and, most important, it sent forwards time and again until the Red Bulls back line--which had allowed a whopping 31 goals up to Wednesday's tilt--gave way.
It wasn't completely fair to New York--able to generate scoring chances of its own, including eight corner kicks to RSL's seven--but confound it, it was good soccer. It was about as one-sided in the first half as RSL could have hoped with Alvaro Saborio, its leading scorer still out due to injury.
Out of halftime, however, things changed. You could sense the momentum shift towards the visiting side as the Red Bulls started to take control. In the 57th minute a ball was crossed into RSL's penalty box on a play that began on a dead ball situation.
Midfielder Tim Cahill, fresh off a World Cup with Australia's national team, back-passed to an unmarked Thierry Henry who hadn't done much up to that point in the game. Standing at the top of the 18, Henry calmly slotted his shot home past RSL keeper Nick Rimando and inside the near post to tie the game.
On a night when RSL managed to bottle up Major League Soccer's leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips--he had no shots and was whistled for offside three times--it was Henry who ended up doing damage, preventing Rimando from tying MLS' shutout record and giving New York a point.
“He’s [Henry] an extremely intelligent player. Sometimes, it looks like he’s not interested, then boom. That’s what it was. We weren’t quite focused enough in that dead ball situation – they played it quick, caught us out of shape, and then we were looking back at it," Cassar said post-game.
New York made the halftime adjustments it needed defensively, narrowing the spaces through which RSL could play--resulting in a physical second half highlighted by a sequence in which RSL forward Olmes Garcia jockeyed for possession of the ball, only to have his manhood grabbed by Olave.
What is the first thing you do when someone grabs you there? You fall to the ground in agony--and that's what Garcia did. Perhaps Olave was still mad that Wingert kicked a ball directly into the path of Olave's face in the 63rd minute--and perhaps Olave was just frustrated by how RSL got the better of him in the first half.
If you look at it another way, it was two Colombians battling for possession. Olave is a native of war-torn Medellin, a man who came up through the country's system as a boy when drug cartels still controlled major interests in professional soccer teams.
Garcia may know less about the troubles Olave experienced growing up--after all, Garcia is only 21. So for Olave, who is 33 years of age, his time left in professional soccer is probably nearing an end--and so he just wanted to survive Garcia's advance and live to fight another day.
Moments after Olave's low grab in Garcia's shorts should have resulted in a yellow card--and didn't--Garcia limped off under his own power and was subbed out for Robbie Findley, who tried to do something to kick start the offense but couldn't manage much.
Findley's best effort resulted in a feeble header that he tried to redirect on frame in stoppage time off of a corner kick--but three points weren't in the stars for RSL, who still managed to get out of Rio Tinto with a 1-1 draw and one point and some respect going into this weekend's tilt at rival Colorado.