HARRISON, N.J. – Kyle Beckerman may have been wearing a Real Salt Lake jersey on Saturday afternoon, but he likely summed up the thoughts of the New York Red Bulls perfectly after the 0-0 draw at Red Bull Arena.
“It kind of felt like the playoffs already started,” Beckerman said.
When the Red Bulls played Real Salt Lake a month ago, the Western Conference side put in a dominating midfield performance in a 1-0 win at Rio Tinto on Sept. 4 that seemed far more emphatic then the scoreline would indicate.
Back in Utah in September, Real Salt Lake's constant waves of pressure overran New York's four-man midfield, a unit that was without central midfielder Rafa Márquez, who at the time was away captaining the Mexican national team.
Saturday afternoon, however, saw a far more balanced performance from the Red Bulls, who battled the MLS Cup champions with a diamond-man midfield.
“[It was] a very tight game that never really opened up,” Backe said.
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Though New York created very few quality offensive chances, they limited and harried Real Salt Lake, pressuring the league’s best midfield and making them look very ordinary. RSL rarely looked in rhythm as they were forced to play safe passes against a high line of pressure from the home side.
Head coach Hans Backe used three central players to clog things up down the spine of his starting XI, calling on Mehdi Ballouchy to slide into a deeper role and going with the usual central pairing of Márquez and Tchani to bottle things up.
On the right wing Backe employed in Joel Lindpere to replace Dane Richards, who was away on international duty. Lindpere started the season as the Red Bulls central playmaker, and his ability to play box to box helped stabilize the match for New York and added some serious defensive bite to the right side of the midfield.
“It was physical — we wanted to show our presence,” defender Tim Ream said. “[We wanted] to get fouls in good areas.”
The emphasis on defense and tactical, physical play was noticeably absent from their last match-up against Real Salt Lake when the Red Bulls looked overwhelmed and out of sorts. In the September match, New York was constantly chasing the ball and conceding possession to RSL.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday afternoon.
And the Red Bulls seemed okay with the tightness of the game. New York matched Real Salt Lake in terms of intensity and feistiness of play, getting called for 13 fouls against 12 whistles for the visitors.
“When we play the big games, like Real Salt Lake, the champs, and they play against us, we want to show that side,” Ballouchy told MLSsoccer.com. “I like to see that from us, that we were physical and not afraid to get stuck-in. That’s what you want to see, that we don’t back down at all.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012