"These are the times that try men's souls."
– Ancient New York Red Bulls saying about the month of November
Red Bull Arena still stands as a fortress of shattered dreams and the Houston Dynamo still stand as the undisputed Eastern Conference kings of autumn. We can go ahead and use any cliche we feel like – they just wanted it more; they have postseason knowhow; veteran teams get it done in the clutch; or any other reading from the big book of Beckhamisms that teams tend to go to at this time of year. They're all applicable, and they're all acceptable.
Here are three things we learned from Houston's 2-1 (AET) win – 4-3 on aggregate – over the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals:
1. The Dynamo were vulnerable all night to flank play
I've made a point of mentioning how vulnerable the Dynamo have been to direct play into the attacking third. Most of that play has been right up the gut this year, and at the start it looked like Wednesday would be no exception.
This was the first big chance of the game:
The Dynamo responded by pulling their fullbacks a little tighter – you can see that Corey Ashe is already tight to the middle on this play.
Tucking them inside opened up the wings for New York, who had two chances that should've made for some goals. First it was up the left side:
Then it was up the right side:
The Dynamo sorted this out, but only after Tally Hall's fumble put them in a hole.
2. Davis' equalizer came from brains
Ibrahim Sekagya came up lame midway through the first half, and the Dynamo immediately started pressing high. That's elementary – once you see a defender is wounded, you exploit him as ruthlessly as possible.
They mostly did this by pushing Will Bruin right at him, but that was only marginally effective. Sekagya kept just barely winning his 1-v-1 duels, and another way of saying that is, "He kept winning his duels."
Davis, however, was patient, and waited for the mental error that comes from trying to play hurriedly through a cramp (it must have been a cramp, right? If it was a strain or a pull there's no way Sekagya finishes the game) instead of the overt physical one.
There are seven Houston players involved in this, and you'll note that Sekagya actually wins the 1-v-1 battle with Bruin. It's only after that, though, that he panics – he needs to get the ball off his foot. He's never going to be able to evade pressure on the dribble.
But he also can't boot it upfield because, at this point, he can barely move his leg.
Davis actually should have been tracking Lloyd Sam, who's at the far left of the .gif trying to provide a direct outlet. Instead, he cherry picks.
Maybe Davis knew that Sekagya would try to go short because of the injury. Maybe he saw something else in the heat of the moment that tipped him off. Whatever the reason, it was a risky but brilliant play.
So, pretty much vintage playoff soccer as far as Houston are concerned.
3. Physicality will cause the Dynamo some problems
Thierry Henry is so elegant and graceful out there that it's sometimes easy to forget that he's a truck of a forward who will put you into the ground if you're not coming strong.
Eric Brunner didn't come strong here:
Henry should have had at least one goal tonight (we'll get to that in a minute) because he was able to manhandle the Dynamo central defense in a way that playoff defenses shouldn't be manhandled. It doesn't need to be dirty from the Dynamo, but they need to be able to avoid getting knocked down in the 18. That's, like, a bare minimum for doing the job.
But they survived. It wasn't pretty, and I'm not sure how they'll have anything at all in the tank for Saturday's Eastern Conference Championship opener at BBVA Compass Stadium. They really were dead on their feet for the last hour of this game until two substitutes (Cam Weaver & Omar Cummings) gave them some life.
That, of course, is the Dynamo way.
Bonus thought: Henry the hero?
If this regular season was defined by anything for the Red Bulls, it was the ability of either Henry or (more often) Tim Cahill to step up and create big plays that led to big goals.
Henry looked to be the man for it on this night, as you can see from the above .gifs. He really was immense, playing as a false No. 9, checking into space with his back to goal and sewing all sorts of confusion in the Dynamo defense.
The goal, though, never came. And New York fans are painfully used to that by now:
Henry has 1 goal in 651 playoff minutes (7.2 games) and counting. When looking for common thread in NYRB postseason issues, start there.— Brian Straus (@BrianStraus) November 7, 2013
Henry's total playoff minutes after Wednesday: 666.