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Lessons Learned From New York Red Bulls vs. UNAM Pumas

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The New York Red Bulls and UNAM Pumas played to an entertaining 0-0 draw in a friendly at the 2012 Red Bull Reto Del Sol in Arizona.

For me, the first half is the most telling of where New York stands.

While the Red Bulls used the majority of their starters for the full 90, Pumas played the first half with only two changes to the side that drew 1-1 against Cruz Azul in Saturday’s Classico Capitolino. This made for an excellent preseason test for Hans Backe’s men against Guillermo Vazquez’s preferred starting XI. A side that is already in mid-season form.

It was also going to be a strong examination for the Red Bulls attack against a well drilled Pumas defense that is compact, and always keeps it shape.

The Red Bulls looked sharp out of the starting blocks, moving the ball well through the midfield, especially on the ground. Six minutes in and the first real question was answered. Thierry Henry won the ball in midfield and played a defense splitting pass to Kenny Cooper. The former Portland Timber should have taken one touch to settle and another to shoot, but instead dilly-dallied on the ball, allowing Marco Antonio Palacios to close him down.

A minute later the Red Bulls executed a gorgeous sweeping team move that started on the right side of defense and flowed all the way to the left corner ended with Dane Richards putting Henry in prime shooting position. The Frenchmen made good contact, but shot right at Alejandro Palacios (twin brother of Marco Antonio).

The New Jersey club was buzzing and adventurous in the first 10 minutes. After that, however, the Red Bulls lost the plot as Pumas took the game to the MLS side.

Pumas were enjoying their space down the flanks, especially attacking the left side of the Red Bulls defense where Roy Miller had absolutely no answer to the skill and guile of Javier Cortes. To be fair, Cortes is one of Mexico’s most promising players and I would venture to say better than any winger in MLS, but he had way too much freedom and enjoyment in skinning Miller.

There were also a few nervous moments down the center of the defense where Stephen Keel (a David Luiz look-a-like and therefore Sideshow Bob wanna be) and Rafa Marquez still need to work out a few preseason kinks. To be fair, they spent the majority of the first half mopping up the mess made out on the wings.

At the other end, the Red Bulls were most dangerous when they eventually attacked with numbers by moving the ball along the carpet.

Two more chances fell to Cooper. The forward first shanked a volley from 16 yards out just after the half-hour mark, but than had an even more embarrassing miss five minutes before half-time. A speculative cross set up perfectly for Cooper who somehow contrived to sky his volley into the upper deck of the stadium.

The second half was a different game. Pumas made seven changes inside the first 20 minutes. Cortes was replaced before the kickoff meaning Miller finally had freedom to roam up and down the left hand side of the pitch.

The Pumas subs bossed the game to no effect, keeping the ball but barely threatening against a resolute Red Bulls defense.

With 10 minutes left, Cooper missed another opportunity, misplacing a header at the back post which will have New York fans shouting that he’s fighting off the cobwebs, while Portland fans are smiling with the first bit of evidence that they made the right trade on draft day.

The Obvious: Richards looked menacing down the flanks and created some dangerous moments.

Thierry Henry continues to be dynamite for the Red Bulls playing almost as a withdrawn striker who can drop into the midfield and create chances just as easily as he can score them.

IF Cooper can find his scoring touch, I will have to shut up and he and Henry could be a deadly duo.

The Outlook: IF the Red Bulls can consistently put together 90 minute performances, playing the way they did in the first 10 minutes, then they will finish much higher in the table this season. That might be asking too much of a team who showed glimpses of major improvement from last season, but in very small doses.

The Harsh Truth: Over the last season and a half in Mexico, Pumas missed the playoffs in the 2011 Apertura and sits in the bottom half of the table in the 2012 Clausura, but they were still by far the better team tonight, even after bringing on their subs. I know the Red Bulls are only in preseason, but the reality is that in Mexico, Pumas are a mid-table team and right now Mexico’s mid-table teams are much better then MLS’. Other than the Galaxy, RSL, and the Sounders, the majority of MLS cannot compete with even the most mediocre of clubs south of the boarder.

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