Tottenham Hotspur, Red Bull New York, and Club América were all in action today. Let’s start with the good; Spurs began their match against Q.P.R. strongly and applied pressure from the outset. Bale’s first goal was a result of beautiful movement and seamless passes. Across the Atlantic in Red Bull Arena, we were not treated to such a show in the final third. The Red Bulls were hosting the regular season champion Los Angeles Galaxy but the first leg of MLS’s marquee match-up failed to produce the promised goals. Going south of the border, Club América hosted DaMarcus Beasley and Puebla FC. Even in front of 80,000 aguila faithful, América did not provide the quality of play expected of them.
Luka Modric was passing and moving, ducking and weaving, darting and playmaking for 90 minutes. Scott Parker was solid in midfield doing the dirty work that allowed Modric the freedom to play his game. Lennon wasn’t as strong down the right side as I would have liked to see, but he had quick decisions with the ball at his foot in the middle of the park. Azza was influential in laying off to Bale for both of his goals.
Gareth Bale was nothing short of amazing, finishing twice on the day. After his breakout on the world stage last year, teams began to mark him smarter and provide support to contain his lung busting runs down the left flank. Bale has now adapted to this defensive shift, coming in more often and opening space for Assou-Ekotto to whip balls into the box. Modric and Bale making intersecting diagonal runs was particularly effective at confusing Q.P.R.’s defense, opening a shot centrally or the run out wide.
Van der Vaart has been undeniable this season. Today he scored his 6th goal in 5 consecutive games which ties a club record. While Adebayor didn’t get on the scoresheet, he was influential in the match. Spur’s big striker got himself into promising positions and was able to get on the end of dangerous crosses but couldn’t direct his chances on frame. The other aspect of his role on the team is to hold up the ball and bring others into the play, which he did well again today.
Kyle Walker was strong down the wing, but looked vulnerable in defense at time. Assou-Ekotto served some effective balls in from wide positions and defended well. Kaboul and King partnered well together and it was the captain’s wayward shot that fell nicely to van der Vaart in a position from which he could not miss. Though Brad Friedel fell short on the one clear chance Q.P.R. created, the 40 year old American was quick off his line to prevent the cross-town team from relying on the long ball over the top. Late in the match Sandro came in for an ailing Parker and played well enough in his 7-minute cameo.
The New York Red Bulls, even at home, walked in as the underdog to the best team in the league. In the 15th minute, former Red Bull Mike Magee was able to get on the end of a magnificent ball played in from Beckham minutes after Robbie Keane knocked one off the post. I could pick apart our poor marking, the lack of speed in our back line or the unwillingness for Frank Rost to move his feet to make saves; but really the combination of the three is deadly for New York. We were completely outclassed by a much better Los Angeles squad.
On the goal, Lindpere left Magee completely alone on his run and lazily puts his arm up along with 6 other New York players. Carlos Mendes, my boy, busts his guts to recover and attempt to close down the ball after trying to play the offside trap at the top of the 18. It was an ugly, ugly play. The defensive positioning was lazy and the marking was appalling. But then again, that’s we we have come to expect from the Red Bulls this season. If a club is going to be weak in the back, at least look good going forward. Sadly that didn’t happen either.
To start the second half, Rafa Marquez launched a beautiful ball from deep to send Dane Richards on his horse. Unfortunately the speedy Jamaican lacked any deftness in his touch or ability with the ball. Two minutes later Luke Rodgers fudges an opportunity to put a shot on frame, but the ball bounces to Henry who tries an acrobatic overhead kick. Somehow Lindpere, the savior of this New York club in the last two seasons, missed a shot on goal from 6 or 7 yards out just two minutes after. The Red Bulls were piling on pressure in the beginning of the second half, but couldn’t make any of it count.
Mehdi Ballouchy came on late for Luke Rodgers, which is a mind-boggling substitution when world class talent Juan Agudelo is sitting on the bench. In the end, the New York Red Bulls put up little resistance to the behemoth that is the Los Angeles Galaxy. And then there was that embarrassing scuffle after the final whistle which means that Juninho for LA and Marquez for New York will both sit out the second leg. Eyes now turn towards Thursday night’s return match at the Home Depot Center. Hopefully the field in Carson, California, is in better condition and the Red Bulls at least go out of the playoffs with some dignity.
On to the ugly match. I mentioned earlier that if a team is going to give up goals every game then they at least have to possess a potent attack. This season the use of attack minded wingbacks and a defensive tackling midfielder has worked wonders for Tottenham; the same cannot be said of Club América. The fall from grace of Club América has been a steady trend since their last championship in 2005. This season the struggles are so bad that there is a realistic chance that Las Aguilas finish in dead-last; right now they are sitting in 17th place out of 18 with one match left to play.
América play a 4-3-3 that sometimes looks like a 4-2-3-1 but mostly operates as a 4-5-1. The problem is that neither Angel Reyna on the right nor Vicente Sanchez on the left are true wingers. They both drift and like to cut inside to take shots on their favored feet; but by inverting the players natural footedness, they are not employed as wide players but rather as two auxiliary strikers attacking from outside positions. Up top América has Christian Chucho Benitez, who in his own right, is a tremendous player. Any team in the Americas (Argentina up to Canada) would drool over the prospect of Chucho suiting up in their colors.
Daniel Rolfi Montenegro effectively operates as the playmaker in attacking midfield. But that leaves Diego Reyes and Rosinei to clean up the midfield, though neither is a natural defensive tackling midfielder in the mold of a Mark van Bommel or a Lassana Diarra. Furthermore, the lack of true wingers invites the outside backs, Oscar Rojas, Edgar Castillo, Miquel Layun, to push up into the vacated space. When América are attacking down the flank this gives four or five quality targets to cross the ball to.
However, when teams seize a counterattack this formation leaves the Azulcrema defense haplessly under-supported. Aquivaldo Mosquera is a phenomenal talent in central defense, again the covet of any team in the Hemisphere, but he and Jorge Reyes can’t fend off three or four opposition players by themselves. You can argue that Armando Navarrete is a weaker goalkeeper compared to Ochoa when he was at his best. There is something to say for the goals he coughs up, like the one he gifted to Puebla on Sunday, but he cannot be blamed for the immense disappointment that the club has been this season. There are simple things that América has not been doing this season, like taking care of the ball when they’re in possession or structuring defensive positioning. The apertura has been dead to Las Aguilas for a long time now, but there’s always the clausura to look forward to.