The Red Bulls and their fans couldn’t really ask for more this season, could they? A new stadium, their team not only goes out and signs one international star (Thierry Henry), but adds a second (Rafa Marquez). The team wins the Eastern Conference and sits poised to make some noise in the playoffs.
But standing in their way is a rag-tag bunch of misfits led by a coach, who is somewhat of a misfit himself.
And, as the baseball team from New York learned in this year’s playoffs, you can never overlook the misfits:
TALE OF THE TAPE
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New York: 15-9-6, 51 pts. – 1st in Eastern Conference
San Jose: 13-10-7, 46 pts. – 6th in Western Conference (seeded 4th in East)
REGULAR SEASON MATCHUPS
San Jose 4-0 New York, May 8
New York 2-0 San Jose, August 28
KEY PLAYER (OBVIOUS)
Chris Wondolowski – I didn’t think he was that good. I still might not think he’s very good. I’m not sure he cares all that much. I am sure that you just don’t luck your way into scoring titles, even in MLS, and Wondolowski deserves everything he gets (just skip ahead to the Inside The Numbers if you don’t think he belongs amongst the MVP finalists).
Dane Richards – Richards is one of the most electrifying players in the league, but somehow managed only 28 shots (only 14 on goal) in 25 regular season appearances this season for the Red Bulls. In Richards’ defense, he usually saves his best stuff for the biggest games, and he’ll have his chance in this postseason. But if he’s a no-show, his team may be in for a battle against the Earthquakes.
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KEY PLAYER (NOT SO OBVIOUS)
Geovanni – I’ve heard him called a bust in the last week or so, but it’s taken him a while to get his fitness, and I’ve seen flashes of brilliance. When he’s on, he makes the Earthquakes instantly better and gives them a dimension they simply don’t have without him on the field. Of course, if he’s giving the ball away and not really moving, he’s a liability that San Jose probably can’t afford in this series.
Tony Tchani – With Thierry Henry likely out of this series, any questions about Tchani starting are probably answered (although Salou Ibrahim may get a chance in place of Tchani in the second leg if Hans Backe thinks he needs to get some offense out there). Like your run-of-the-mill defensive midfielder, Tchani took little time to take over the team lead in fouls, but he’s shown the ability to get the ball to guys like Richards and Joel Lindpere, and if he’s doing that consistently, San Jose will be in trouble.
KEY PLAYER (SUBTLE)
Arturo Alvarez – Alvarez was probably San Jose’s most skillful player over the last couple of seasons, but a combination of injuries and just a lack of confidence have limited him to three goals this season (which isn’t too bad if you scroll down below). His last goal was on July 10 against Philadelphia. A boost from him somewhere in the 180 minutes might help the Earthquakes pull the upset.
Carlos Mendes – To me, he’s the weak link, one that the Red Bulls have been able to hide fairly well this season for the most part, but not always. Mendes has committed twice as many fouls as partner Tim Ream in somewhere near half the minutes, and a Mendes mistake might be the way the Earthquakes can break through in Red Bull Arena.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Number of goals Ike Opara and Arturo Alvarez scored this season. Why is that significant? They tied for second on San Jose behind Wondolowski. Opara: a) is a defender and b) only played in 11 games this season. You can put that in the Wondolowski for MVP category. Thanks.
Among any of the four, this series may expose the flaws in the current MLS playoff system. The Red Bulls – without Henry – have to fly across the country for a late Saturday night game in tiny Buck Shaw Stadium in front of a small, but fairly passionate fan base. It’s also a place where they lost 4-0 earlier this season.
If San Jose wins the first game – and they have the talent to do it – they could make things very difficult in New Jersey.
Of course, the playoff system giveth and it taketh away. This was the same system New York rode to the MLS Cup finals two years ago.
San Jose 3-1 on aggregate – Yes, I’m predicting a Columbus-San Jose Eastern Conference final. Crazy or brilliant? We’ll find out together.