For all the international games played in New York this summer, it was nice to have one that actually counted toward something larger. All those World Cup preparation games, those friendlies that were meant to prepare teams for Brazil, or the pre-season competitions that ended in a trophy ceremony, all those victories and cups held aloft were rather empty in a way. It was great to see some of the world’s top teams, to see the arena packed for Red Bulls against Arsenal or Bayern Munich versus Chivas. Yet after each game the teams left with lessons learned, an injury or two, and little else.
Last night the New York Red Bulls faced CD FAS in a game that matters. With the Red Bulls practically out of the race to repeat their Supporters Shield win and dancing on the edge of post-season qualification, this competition could be their chance at a prestigious feather in their cap.
To have guessed at the importance of this game would have been impossible looking at the crowd. During the team warm-ups it was possible to actually count the fans in the upper bowl of the arena (126). Whole sections were empty. The lower bowl was more crowded, ranging from 25 to 50 in each section, many wearing the shirts of CD FAS or carrying the flag of El Salvador.
The CONCACAF Champions League is set up like the European competition, teams facing one another twice, with goal accumulation rather than three points for a win and two for a draw, something that it seems like many fans were familiar with but didn’t realize applied to the CONCACAF series. It is something that coach Mike Petke lamented at the press conference when he said that the team could have had, actually should have had, more goals. But he was happy with a two goal, clean sheet win when it came down to it.
Petke is a coach that talks like a fan, or at least the points he makes sound like the ones made from the stands. Last night he brought on new striker Saer Sene as a starter, choosing to rest star Bradley Wright-Phillips, although he was named as a possible substitute, and keep Thierry Henry off the roster. It was a decision that paid off early with a goal, but became more doubtful as the game progressed. Sene comes to the Red Bulls from New England Revolution and played a few minutes to get his feet wet on Saturday against Montreal, but last night he and Tim Cahill led the team from the front in a mixed performance. Sene seemed to have a hard time keeping on his feet during play, just off from a pass and whipping his tall body around to catch up, falling instead.
It is understandable that the star strikers would be rested as coach Petke prioritizes their MLS League play. However, the fact that it was lamented by the CD FAS assistant coach in the post-match press conference when he spoke of not only his, but the team’s desire, not just as players but as fans of the game, to see someone like Thierry Henry on the pitch.