There are teams that have stars. You know them. You watch them. Their names are synonymous with their clubs. Real Madrid and Ronaldo; Barcelona and Messi, just to name two. Last year when the Red Bulls announced their lineup just after the National Anthem and moments before the match officially started, only the first names of the players were needed – the crowd filling in the last. For example, the public address announcer Bob Galerstein would yell “Eric!” and the crowd would shout back “Alexander!” Maybe it is just because it is still early in the season, but these days only Tim was strung out for the roar of “Cahill” and Thierry left dangling for the response “Henry.” Granted, some names are easier than others, and there are a few new faces on the team, but is that it – and are they even chanting the right ones?
In a way, yes. They’ve pinned down the top two players in terms of salaries on the team, and as performers they often play very well. The fans have also pinned down the names of a striker and strong attacking midfielder, and there is no denying that the Red Bulls are an attacking team. But are they in that position by necessity? The thing about stars is that they may be the face of a team, but it is their strengths combined with the strengths of those around them that make it greater than the sum of 1+10.
Saturday night the Red Bulls took a 2-1 lead off the pitch at the end of the first half against the Chicago Fire. There is nothing about this score line that is a guarantee that any team will win, but to see the Fire pull even within the first five minutes of the second half, then go one up four minutes later, is distressing. Then to watch them pull ahead by two five minutes after that on a defensive misplay, and then seal the game six minutes later is hard for even the casual fan at the arena to watch. But that is exactly what happened.
It was the sort of game that makes anyone who says that soccer is a game of the heart and beauty (and not of statistics and numbers) smile. Possession, passing, shots, and crosses all settled out in the Red Bulls favor. But the devil is in the details, in little things like accuracy. And defending.
If there is one thing that was made obvious when Peguy Luyindula, a self-described attacking midfielder, was substituted on for defender Kosuke Kimura, it wasn’t that the Red Bulls felt secure enough in the back to add more to the front. Rather, it felt that move was made to keep the ball as forward as possible and away from a struggling defense.
Cahill pulled the Red Bulls even after the Fire scored in the fourth minute, but the rest of the game belonged to the scoring touch of Bradley Wright-Phillips. His name got a roar at the start, and his hat trick on Saturday should have more people calling his name before each match. Lloyd Sam, whose speed and control were stunning, should also have picked up more of a following.
The Red Bulls are a team that is still in search of an identity. Let’s hope they find it soon.
[Photo credit: Rob Tringali/ New York Red Bulls]