8:54 am Nov. 5, 2012
You would hardly have guessed, if you watched this weekend's comically bad Eastern Conference playoff game between the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United, that the winner of the next leg at Red Bull Arena Wednesday night will probably be favored to reach the M.L.S. Cup final.
The two teams played to a 1-1 draw. The eventual winner will play whoever emerges from a playoff between the conference's top seed, Sporting Kansas City, and the Houston Dynamo, in the conference final. Houston won the first leg, 2-0. New York or D.C. would have home-field advantage in the next round over Houston.
In their game, though, the Red Bulls and D.C. United appeared to be trying to one-up each other in alternating blunders.
Connor Lade has been a valuable member of the Red Bulls this season, playing an array of defensive positions well. But his ill-timed handball gave D.C. a penalty kick in the 33rd minute. No problem; a poor attempt by D.C.'s Chris Pontius was knocked away by Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, maybe the only person on either team who had a strong game.
Thwarted in their first attempt to give the game away, the Red Bulls took it to another, Metrostars-like level. Tempermental "designated player" Rafael Marquez reportedly had a shouting match with coach Hans Backe at halftime, and was subbed out; the team said Marquez merely suffered a calf strain. Both fit neatly with the larger body of disappointing work Marquez has given the Red Bulls.
Forced to make a change, the Red Bulls inserted mistake-prone Roy Miller, who, true to form, finished an own goal in the 60th minute after some poor defending on Nick DeLeon. D.C. United led, 1-0.
But five minutes later, a harmless looping ball from Heath Pearce sent D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid inexplicably sprawling into his own goal as he corraled it. The match was tied, 1-1. M.L.S. had its first playoff game ever with multiple own goals.
The D.C. self-sabotage continued a few minutes later, when defender Andy Najar, upset at a yellow card, hurled the ball at an official, earning a red card and allowing the Red Bulls a man advantage for the final 23 minutes of the match.
The Red Bulls responded by utterly wasting that advantage, with Robles touching the ball more than Thierry Henry, who barely registered in the match at all, over that final period.
After it was over, D.C. United coach Ben Olsen made it clear that he wasn't particularly impressed by the Red Bulls.
“It’s a beatable team," Olsen said in his post-match press conference. "We should have won this game tonight, but 1-1, I’m OK with it. They are a beatable team, that’s for sure. Ultimately, I’m a little disappointed we didn’t win because I thought we played well enough to get a result.”
That's just coach-speak. His team was "beatable" this weekend too.
Perhaps one of the coaches can persuade his team to play competent soccer on Wednesday. There's quite probably a trip to the finals at stake, after all.