FRISCO, Texas – New York Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe practically took a pair of fight tactics from two of boxing’s greatest – Muhammad Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” and Joe Frazier’s “kill the body and the head will die” philosophy – to guide his team to a 2-0 victory over FC Dallas in their wild card tilt on Wednesday night.
In a match Backe likened to “two heavyweight champions fighting,” New York sat back and absorbed every punch FCD threw. In the process, they made sure to cut off midfielder Daniel Hernandez’s ability to distribute passes to the speedy attackers from his central spot, the most important key to victory in the Red Bulls’ gameplan.
“I thought they’d be all over us in the first 15, 20 minutes with the pace they have,” Backe told reporters in his postgame press conference. “As I said before the game, I think the key has to be to close down Hernandez’s distribution, so we put Thierry [Henry] on him and then we sat with four in the midfield just to cover the space for the pacey guys in Dallas, the front three guys.”
The plan worked out quite well for the Red Bulls.
Although FC Dallas roared out of the gates, using speed and pressure to put New York on their heels, the Red Bulls managed to survive some scary early moments, including chances from Jackson and Marvin Chávez.
As the match wore on, New York's back line and midfield settled in and turned the tables on home side, putting pressure on FCD to wear them down and finally start to see some time on the ball.
“Tonight, we managed to close down well and there were a lot of people helping to not leave doors open,” said right back Jan Gunnar Solli. “[We were] a little bit shaky in the start, but after a while, we took over, got some good possession, and we could feel when we came into halftime they were getting a little bit tired.”
After surviving another early rush from FCD to start off the second half, the Red Bulls were rewarded for their defensive work on the other end of the pitch, as Joel Lindpere finished off a Mehdi Ballouchy cross in the 61st minute for the 1-0 lead.
“The ball went out to Mehdi and Mehdi gave me a great ball and I was timing my run very perfectly,” Lindpere said after the match. “Maybe I didn’t hit the ball so hard, but it was difficult to reach for the goalie.”
FC Dallas came close to equalizing in the 76th minute, when Brek Shea took a ball behind the defense and tried to chip Red Bulls ‘keeper Frank Rost, who had rushed off his line. But again defense saved the day as center back Tim Ream came flying in and cleared the ball at the goal line.
“I know what Brek can do with his speed and his skill,” Ream told MLSsoccer.com. “His only option was to chip it over and [hope] that the spin would carry it in. I got just back there, and if I see that the goalie is doing is coming off the line, doing his job, then I’m going to back him up and help him out.”
The hardest part of the test for the Red Bulls defense came with 10 minutes remaining, when Solli earned a red card for his hard tackle from behind on Hernandez.
Reduced to 10 men, the Red Bulls didn’t lose their cool. They stayed tight, held off the home side, and eventually struck again eight minutes into second-half stoppage by way of Henry to hammer the final nail in the coffin.
“What I said before the game is if we want to go through, we have to play tight and have a great team performance, and that’s what happened,” said Henry.
When all was said and done, it was New York’s solid defensive work that enabled them to land the knockout punch.