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Thursday, 27 October 2011

MLS Weekly Review – Playoff Edition – Wildcard: Match One – FC Dallas v NY Red Bulls – Of Unexpected, Unheralded Heroes, Solli Loses his Head, Backe Realizing the Value of Substitutions, & the Impending Long-Desired Battle of Heavy-Weights.

    The 2011 MLS Playoffs began in front of a less than sold out crowd on a cool night at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. A disappointing attendance of just over 10 000 dotted the stadium despite rumoured attempts to flog tickets at the cut rate of six dollars hours before the match kicked off.

    Both sides began in a cagey manner - high-stakes nature of the night aside – the first goal was imperative and likely decisive, as fourteen of the last fifteen teams to open the scoring in Dallas have gone on to win.

    Dallas - well-rested after fielding a largely reserve side on the weekend – gradually came into the match. Their spritely wide-play began to garner chances, a glimpse at that dynamism that had earned them such plaudits at their zenith early in the summer. But all they could create were a number of half-chances; nothing particularly bothersome.

    Their striker-less formation was lacking that dangerous point-man necessary to capitalize on the chances given. Jackson, a right-back by trade, was positioned at the tip of a speedy attacking trident. And despite some great service from the flanks – a low cross from Brek Shea on the left was poked meekly goal-ward, while Zach Loyd’s positively inviting delivery from the right could not be redirected on target – his finishing left something to be desired.

    One must wonder what happened to the young Columbian Fabián Castillo that has seen him collect so few minutes since returning from the U-20 World Cup in his homeland. Maicon Santos too, hardly the bastion of consistency, but with a higher potential to convert chances than the out of position Jackson, was left out of the starting eleven.

    Rafa Márquez was his usual static and unimpressive-self, though his delivery from dead-ball situations was more consistent than it had been all season and he did manage to show some passion and joy come the conclusion of the match. His free header from a Joel Lindpere corner kick was woeful, leaving much to be desired from the high-priced former star.

    Dallas was nervous in defense, narrowly avoiding conceding a penalty kick when Ugo Ihemelu was out-muscled by the much smaller Dane Richards and kicked out, tripping the Jamaican from the floor seemingly inside the area.

    Having withstood the opening pressure, New York gradually played their way into the match. Thierry Henry began to impress his will on the match, showing a few touches of class – a clever dummy followed by a neat one-two with Dax McCarty led to a rasping effort that squirreled wide of the near-post.

    The awakening of the Frenchman began a steady period of New York chances – Kevin Hartman was forced to rush off his line to collect a ball lest Richards be in alone and was then called upon to deny a blast from Tim Ream who found himself in space just inside the penalty area.

    McCarty was injured by a snapping challenge from Dallas captain Daniel Hernández, and was forced to leave some minutes later after trying to play through the pain. It was in the next ten minutes that the night was decided. Some hustle from Marvin Chávez deep on the left-side saved a throw-in. He then fought past his marker and dragged a ball through the goalmouth; whether it was a shot or a cross – for the streaking Jackson – it was off-target in both cases. Hernández then lined up a left of centre free kick from some thirty yards, only for his curling effort to skim the outside netting at the near-post.

    It was beginning to seem as though Dallas would have no luck on this night and their profligacy proved costly within minutes. 

    Mehdi Ballouchy came on – an inspired substitution by coach Hans Backe and one much derided by the Twitter-sphere; staggered both at his inclusion over Juan Agudelo and at Backe actually making a change with more than five minutes remaining, though in earnest his hand was forced by the injury to Dax.

    The surprise move paid dividends immediately – two minutes after injection - as his ingenious ball into the area caught the Dallas centre-backs moving in the wrong direction, as they attempted to push out, for Lindpere to break in and to poke his finish through Hartman.

    Lindpere had started the attack with a long-range blast parried by the keeper to the left, only for Richards to collect and feed Ballouchy for the setup.

    New York then set out to stifle the remaining half hour, a task made more difficult when Jan Gunnar Solli saw red for a completely unnecessary and recklessly high scissor-tackle from behind on Hernández.

    Dallas however showed very little urgency once a man up, almost resigned to their fate. They then lost Zach Loyd to a head injury – losing their advantage having already made their three subs - and mustered only one dangerous scramble – a Jackson through-ball for a streaking Brek Shea, whose chipped effort into the goalmouth was coolly cleared by Ream – and a few paltry shots from distance to meekly see out the match.

    Frank Rost showed a cool, calm, Teutonic disposition in marshalling his troops and backstopping a solid evening. His positioning and collection was flawless; making every shot appear to be straight at him, and stifling opportunities by limiting the effectiveness of crosses. 

    Henry capped the night late into injury time with a goal from a solo effort, collecting a long-ball, walking in unfettered and getting a shot off before Hernández and Hartman could close him down. His first attempt was saved, but the rebound fell conveniently into his path, allowing him to calmly walk it in to the unguarded net in the ninety-eighth minute.   

    Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman was burningly disappointed, fuming in a stoic sort of way, as New York’s Backe smiled uncontrollably. It was announced that the Red Bulls coach would be back next season, regardless of the result, though his jubilation indicated the 0-2 victory would go some way to making the offseason slightly less vexing.

    New York finds themselves undefeated in their last four road matches in the MLS Cup playoffs – a potentially important portent for the next round - while also continuing to hold Dallas winless in the last six meetings between the clubs.

    Ballouchy addressed the divisions in his side in a post match interview, saying that at times throughout the season there have been negatives, but should they play for each other - as a team should – it could serve them well in the playoffs.

    Their progression sets up a huge quarterfinal (conference semifinal) meeting between number one-ranked Los Angeles and number ten New York in the West-East Coastal battle of the big-name-star-powered, large market titans.

    The second wildcard match takes place tonight – Thursday, October 27th – in the snowy heights of Colorado’s DSG Park.

    The Columbus Crew, another northern team somewhat used to an autumnal chill, visit Commerce City, on the outskirts of Denver to attempt to out-duel the Rapids. Expect another tight, tense, low-scoring affair, though perhaps one with a little more bite as both sides like a tackle.

Dallas v New York 0-2.

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