Anatomy of a Breakdown … Or, Three of Them

This weekend offered us three vibrant examples of what happens when teams fall apart. One of the games had well more at stake than the other two, but while the trio were three of the more talked about games on the weekend, I think it’s interesting to look at what happened in a larger sense.

The three games, of course, are Saturday’s Manchester United-Tottenham match, which had Premier League title implications; as well as the Real Salt Lake-New England match that night; and then the DC United-New York match on Sunday afternoon.

All three games offered glimpses of what happens to teams when adversity becomes too much to deal with – be it adversity heaped on them from their own failings, or those of an outside source.

Let’s start with the penalty heard ’round the world (OK, maybe that’s a little much), which started Manchester United’s rally from 2-0 down in the second half to a 5-2 victory over Tottenham. There already has been all sorts of debate about whether or not Howard Webb has gotten the call right or not. I don’t think there’s any question that Spurs keeper Gomes got the ball first as United midfielder Michael Carrick raced in, then fell over the sprawled keeper. But what I’ve heard from many commentators and such is that when they first saw it live, they thought it was a clear penalty. On review, their minds changed. Webb, of course, had no such review. It’s hard to argue that on first glance, it’s a 100% sure penalty – which it should be for Webb to call it – but if that’s what he thought, he had to it. He doesn’t get the many reviews that we do.

But regardless, and even with Ronaldo putting home the penalty (right up the middle, but he got away with it), it’s still 2-1. Everyone has blamed Webb for everything from Spurs’ eventual loss to the spread of swine flu, but this is too simplistic. Spurs still held a 2-1 lead with 33 minutes to go. If Spurs are soft in the heart category, and lacked the competitiveness to respond after feeling wronged by the penalty in such a fashion that they then gave up four goals in a 12-minute span … then it can be argued they were going to lose anyway. It’s a clear view as to why Spurs are where they are, and why they never break through. Even if wronged by the penalty, there’s no excuse for Spurs not to at least come up with a point. Instead, they folded faster than the Detroit Lions on a Sunday and were well beaten. I’m sure fans of other teams will wonder why Webb doesn’t get a medal if United win the league, but Tottenham has to look at its own failings in the end. There’s simply no reason to capitulate in that fashion.

REAL SALT LAKE did what DC United couldn’t do the week before. In New England’s last two league matches, the Revs have surrendered 49 shots, 20 of those on goal. In a 1-1 draw the week prior, United couldn’t make pay a 20-4 shot advantage and a first half full of possession and some decent chances – needing a Ben Olsen header seconds into second-half stoppage time to salvage the draw after Shalrie Joseph had scored for New England. On Saturday, the Revolution again absorbed shot after shot, but once the floodgates opened, there was little the Revs could do.

This is different from the first example in that you could sense at some point New England would be punctured. But six times? When the onslaught was over (and it only ended because you know, the game ended), RSL had six goals in 36 minutes from six different goal scorers. While MLS seems to be a league where any team can beat any other team, you wouldn’t expect one to do it by a 6-0 margin – especially without a multiple-goal performance from a particular player. It’s one thing for a player to have an “in-the-zone” night and bang home five because the other team had no answer for him (Clint Mathis, 8/26/2000, vs. Dallas). But not here. Although Mathis got in on the fun with a goal and assist Saturday, RSL got a goal or an assist from nine different players. That’s the kind of thing you see in the NHL, not MLS.

The good news is, of these three situations, the Revs have the easiest mode of recovery. They can chalk it up to one bad night, a fluke that would never happen again and move on. Though some argue there are deeper problems.

THE NEW YORK RED BULLS, however, have no such excuse. Having fought back from a halftime deficit to take a 2-1 lead on rival DC United in the second half, at home, the Red Bulls gagged all the points away in the final minutes. United got goals from Luciano Emilio (90th minute) and Chris Pontius (91st) to steal a 3-2 win.

Clearly, this is the most catastrophic of the three examples. It wasn’t just that New York gave away the victory. Playing late on a hot day on a fake grass field, accidents happen, so the fact that United at least got level isn’t a total surprise. Second-half substitutes Boyzzz Khumalo and Brandon Barklage brought some needed energy to a United team that were outplayed most of the second half. Also, the Red Bulls had failed to convert some earlier chances for a third goal that probably would have put the game away.

But on both goals, the comedy trio of Alfredo Pacheco, Kevin Goldthwaite, and goalkeeper Jon Conway gifted United their goals with lousy marking and miscommunication in the penalty area.

Again, that this happened once, given the conditions, may not be acceptable – but accidents happen. All teams at some point give away points in a game that they should have won. It probably happens to every team in the league at least once a season.

But the entire makeup of the Red Bulls can be questioned when giving up the winning goal. A club that is more famous for its failures than successes wouldn’t have erased that notion by winning (or even drawing) on Sunday. But they sure as hell reinforced it with a Keystone Cops routine that left the club 1-4-2 through seven games, with just five points. All that was missing from the sketch was Benny Hill music in the background. One can only speculate what was going on between Pacheco and Conway on the winning goal, as Pacheco pulled up, Conway didn’t get to it – and then Pacheco actually turned his back to the play as Khumalo recovered the lose ball, rolled it to the middle and Pontius bashed it home before Goldthwaite (who was late on the tying goal, too) could recover.

New York’s situation is probably the opposite of New England’s here. The Red Bulls can legitimately question themsleves as to whether they know how to finish a game – they blew two points earlier this season in a draw vs. New England. There’s simply no valid excuse for this loss.

On the bright side for New York, there weren’t many people there to see it. I know the official attendance was 10,303, but there weren’t near that many in the house.

It will be an interesting test for Spurs, the Revs, and New York to see how they respond in their next league matches.


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