It has been two full days since the New York Red Bulls’ stunning 3-0 playoff upset of Houston, and while attention has already turned to Saturday’s Western Conference final showdown vs. Real Salt Lake, I wanted to take one last look back at a day that will go down in Red Bulls history:
As the echoes of beating bass drums could be heard outside the locker room at Robertson Stadium, many the New York Red Bulls walked around the make-shift visitor’s locker room slowly and achingly. You could see many of the team’s starters feeling the pain after giving their all for 90 minutes of selfless, gutsy and inspired soccer, but you could also see the weary smiles on their faces.
You could see them exchanging satisfied glances amongst themselves. They had just pulled off a stunning upset win against the Houston Dynamo, a series victory that energized a club and vindicated a coach. A triumph that reminded us why games are played and why fans love an underdog and why there is rarely a sure thing in the game of soccer.
While most pundits spent the week leading up to Sunday’s decisive game two between New York and the Houston Dynamo giving the Red Bulls no chance, the Red Bulls kept repeating one mantra. ‘If we play the same way and give the same effort we gave in game one, we can beat Houston’.
The refrain sounded good, but was it believable? Surely it would take more than just maximum effort and a good game-plan to beat a team as deep, as talented and as experienced as Houston, wouldn’t it? Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio spent every day after the team qualified for the playoffs, and learned it would face Houston, telling his team it could do what few thought it could.
The first thing Osorio had to do was figure out a lineup that could pull off the upset. With three key starters missing due to injury and suspension, and three high-profile mid-season signings playing too poorly to count on, Osorio looked at the remainder of his roster and started putting together a lineup he believed could beat the Dynamo.
It began with a back-four of Chris Leitch, Andrew Boyens, Diego Jimenez and Kevin Goldthwaite, the same back-line that posted a shutout in the Red Bulls’ 3-0 win against the Dynamo on Aug. 24. The midfield would be the hard part, what with Seth Stammler’s season-ending injury and the the poor form of Juan Pietravallo and Jorge Rojas.
Osorio turned to a seldom-used second-year player and a rookie who hadn’t played in months, but Osorio believed that Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Luke Sassano could form a central midfield capable of carrying out the game-plan. They didn’t have to be better than Houston’s dynamic tandem of Dwayne DeRosario and Ricardo Clark, but they had to do everything they could to make things difficult for the Dynamo duo.
“(Osorio) just told us, “Guys, I’m not gambling on you, I believe you can do the job’,” Sassano said. “Knowing a coach believes in you like that gives you confidence that you can go out there and play well.”
While Sassano and Ubiparipovic put in impressive performances, perhaps the most unsung hero of the game was John Wolyniec, who practically played as a central midfielder in the second half, running all over the field and providing vital defensive support as the Dynamo attacked the Red Bulls in waves. When the Dynamo inevitably tired, and the Red Bulls went for the killer blow, it was Wolyniec who summoned enough energy to race toward the front of goal, where he knew Richards would find him for the game-clinching third goal after Richards ripped apart Houston’s defense one final time with a jaw-dropping 65-yard dribble and pass. When Wolyniec followed up the goal with an attempt at Michael Jackson’s Thriller Dance, it was a move fans laughed at and teammates ate up as they all appreciated the inside joke.
After the match, Wolyniec was one of the walking wounded, feeling the aches from 90 minutes of relentless effort. Long criticized for his struggles to score, and for everything he wasn’t, Wolyniec took a deep breath and had a look of relief after putting forth a performance that so clearly illustrated what he can bring to a team.
“It’s hard right now because I’m pretty tired, but it’s a little overwhelming,” Wolyniec said, when asked to put the victory into perspective after all the struggles of the season and all the club’s years of futility.
“It’s a great feeling,” Wolyniec added. “We really battled so hard and put so much work in. Obviously it’s been a little bit of an up and down year, but to beat two-time defending champs on their own field, it’s a really good feeling.
“The greatest thing is we came in and guys are already talking about next week. We got great opportunities and hopefully we can put the same effort out there.”
And that comment showed you just what the series victory had done for a club that looked in danger of melting down just two weeks earlier. Rather than just basking in the glow of a victory for the ages, the Red Bulls were already looking forward to next week, the next challenge and the next chance to show die-hard fans and impartial observers alike why they just might be a team of destiny.