Backpost Excursion: Argentina Training at Red Bull Arena

The Backpost AV Team went out to Red Bull Arena last night to watch Argentina train ahead of their Clash-of-the-Titans friendly with Brazil tomorrow, and, well, any concerns we had about spending $48 (the Son of Backpost was in tow) to watch a practice session were immediately dispelled when we caught sight, from the fifth row, of Lionel Messi, Angel DiMaria, Sergio (Kun) Aguero , Javier Mascherano and the rest of the Albicelestes pinging the ball around in tight spaces like magicians.

It was well worth it, and thousands of others agreed. Here’s a completely professional, ESPN-worthy* pan of the crowd, where you can see that the lower bowl of RBA is just about full, which would put the attendance close to 10,000 (capacity is 25k):

When we arrived they were playing 11 v 11 in less than half the field—one goal moved to midfield, pitch narrowed to the width of the 18-yard box—and the display was awesome. Mistake-free, one- and two-touch passing, rarefied skill level. Here’s a sample:

A few observations from the session:

• Leo Messi’s first touch is made of rich, creamery butter. No matter what kind of pressure he’s under—and in an 11 v 11 drill in a compressed field, you’re constantly under pressure—his first touch leaves the ball right where he needs it.

• Angel Di Maria looks slight on television, but in person he’s got some starch, and he can absolutely thump the ball. He rocked the post with a shot during the 11 v 11 and later, in a shooting drill, sent one whistling past our ears in the stands. It was wobbling and shifting in the air as it went past.

• As much as we hate to admit it, we wondered how the U.S. national team would have looked running the same exercise. Probably … not quite the same.

They wrapped up the practice with some shooting. Click here to see Messi, at the 24-second mark, bending one into the side netting:

*This statement has not been fact-checked.

Red Bulls Lose Match, Draw Postgame Donnybrook

The Red Bulls gave up a 15th-minute goal to former New York attacker Mike Magee, and despite a furious effort, could not find an equalizer over the remaining 75 minutes, falling 1-0 to Los Angeles in the first leg of their Western Conference semifinal series at Red Bull Arena yesterday afternoon.

The Galaxy backline, ably anchored by keeper Josh Saunders—who made five saves, three of them outstanding ones—bent but did not break and succeeded in frustrating New York.

Most frustrated of all was midfielder Rafa Marquez, who had a point blank volley stuffed by Saunders in stoppage time, and then boiled over after the final whistle. The Mexico captain fired the game ball at Landon Donovan as the LA midfielder walked near midfield, sparking a full-blown fracas near the halfway line.

Marquez and Galaxy midfielder Juninho were red-carded for their roles in the dustup, and will miss the second leg on Thursday. We’d say that’s a push in terms of personnel losses for the two sides.

Here’s the incident:

(We enjoyed Harkes‘s “maybe a fly went into his eye” comment.)

And here are the very entertaining match highlights:

The return leg should be something to see, that much you can be sure of. It’s on Thursday at 11:00 pm ET on ESPN2.

We put on our MLS press fedora and went into the Galaxy locker room after the game to get some quotes on both the melee and the performance of LA keeper  Saunders.

Donovan told us some very interesting things. Go check them out here, and see here for the Galaxy’s take on Saunders’ game-saving turn between the pipes.

The New York–LA clash led a pretty spectacular weekend of MLS playoff action, including more feistiness in Philly, a shocker in Salt Lake, and a freakish plague of injuries in Colorado. Catch up on all of that right here.

Red Bull Roundup

It’s been a busy week for Red Bull New York. Let’s run it down:

• Last Friday, the club confirmed it had signed long-sought-after striker Luke Rodgers, formerly of League One side Notts County, where New York boss Hans Backe had a brief coaching stint. The speedy, diminutive (and feisty) forward scored 13 goals in 46 games for third-level Notts County. Hmmm. How will that translate to MLS? We have our doubts. Then again, Notts County just tied Man City in FA Cup play. Rodgers is nursing a right knee injury but hopes to join preseason training soon.

• On Tuesday, Major League Soccer—with Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan in attendance—announced that Red Bull Arena will be the site of the 2011 All-Star Game. The MLS All Stars’ opponent for that game, scheduled for July 27, has yet to be announced, but we’ve heard rumors that it will be—drumroll, please—Barcelona. We’ll find out within the next 30 days.

• Yesterday the club confirmed the long-anticipated signing of 20-year-old Brazilian midfielder Marcos Paullo, who had a trial with New York in 2010, and made an appearance in RBNY’s 2-1 win over Manchester City last July.

Say hello him here, where he gives a shout-out to the significant Brazilian community in Newark, the next town over from Harrison, home to Red Bull Arena:

• Former Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who was rumored to be the next man at Chivas USA, yesterday accepted the head coaching position of the Honduran national team, the newly minted champions of Central America.

• Coach Backe says that New York is still shopping for players, and hopes to add a right back and a central midfielder or a central defender before the March 19 opener against Seattle.

• Finally, that pesky Nicolas Anelka rumor resurfaced today, with French magazine L’Equipe quoting Anelka’s brother Claude as saying that the Chelsea striker could join former international teammate Henry at RBA. Treat it with a grain of salt for two reasons: 1. Anelka’s contract at Stamford Bridge doesn’t expire for a year and a half, and 2. The source of this rumor last time was—you guessed it—Claude Anelka. On the other hand, Fernando Torres did just sign with the Blues, possibly rendering Anelka superfluous. We’re not holding our breath either way.

Red Bulls Open New Stadium in Style

Saturday night’s Grand Opening of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., could hardly have gone better for the home side.

The good fortune started with the weather, which was a clear and mild 70 degrees—and no small detail when you consider the franchise’s history of bad luck in that department: It rained all day leading up to the Red Bulls’ very first home opener back in 2006, and last season’s finale, the last soccer game ever at Giants Stadium, was played in Nor’easter conditions.

But Saturday night, it was perfect. Good omen?

When the game started, all signs pointed to yes: The Red Bulls came out flying, knocking the ball around, pressuring Santos—the legendary former club of Pelé, and the current leaders in the Brazilian league—all over the field. Each player performed as if he was damned if he was going to be the one to mess up the historic opening of the team’s new stadium.

The collective energy was too much for Santos, and RBNY broke through 11 minutes in. Joel Lindpere’s free kick came back to him off the wall and he slammed it into the corner from 18 yards. The place exploded, with the noise-retaining roof over the seats doing its job, creating a completely electric atmosphere.

Just before halftime Red Bull midfielder Carl Robinson sent a corner kick to the far post, where it was headed back in front by rookie defender Tim Ream then turned into the net by Mike Petke. Petke, who’s in his second tour of duty in MetroBull colors, and who’s been waiting for this stadium longer than any current player, could not have been more pumped.

One minute later, midfielder Dane Richards, who has the speed but also the touch on the ball of a gazelle, suddenly turned into Hristo Stoichkov, taking a square pass from striker Macoumba Kandji, looking up once, and burying a shot into the top far corner from 22 yards.

Where did that come from? And who was this team?

These were the thoughts of longtime fans as the place erupted for a third time in the first 45 minutes. Sure, this was only an exhibition, and Santos may have been travel-weary, but it was hard to resist the idea that a new era had arrived for the franchise. The place was sold out, there was palpable energy in the stadium, and RBNY shirts and scarves were everywhere—three things that never happened in the old building.

Here’s something else that never, in 14 years, happened in the old venue: In the second half, the Red Bulls strung together passing sequences of 22 and 20 consecutive touches, as the crowd chanted “Olé” with each pass. We had to convince ourselves that this was the Red Bulls we were watching. They coasted to a 3-1 win.

As for the stadium—believe the hype. It’s great looking, and intimate, and yet it also looks bigger and more impressive than you might expect. Much ink has been spilled in praise of the venue, and it’s all accurate: we give it an A; go check it out.

There were some glitches, though, starting with the parking, or lack of it. Yes, the stadium currently has no parking. That’s obviously a problem. (We came by train, but we overheard some gripes about traffic as well.)

They also didn’t have all of the gates open on Saturday night for some reason, and this led to really long lines of people with tickets, just waiting to get in to the stadium. A Red Bull employee told us they would have this sorted out for next week’s MLS opener against Chicago, which is also sold out.

As for RBNY players, there was good news from back to front. Bouna Time was in full effect as keeper Bouna Coundoul made several acrobatic saves. In front of him, rookie Ream was unflappable on the ball, and made quality passes out of the back. Very solid performance from him. Lindpere was rugged and active in central midfield. His goal was well taken, and he showed some bite on defense.

Up top, Kandji, and Ghanian trialist Ibrahim Salou both troubled the Santos backline all night, though neither scored, and Salou should have done better with a good chance right after Lindpere’s opener. Seventeen-year-old Red Bull Academy product John Agudelo came on in the second half and looked good. He’s a big kid, and if the Bulls sign him and Salou, they’ll start the season with more depth at forward than they’ve ever had.

On the downside, Robinson and Richards both limped off early with injuries.

Finally, that penalty-kick event our associate was supposed to be involved in? Get ready for an anticlimax. Take it away, close friend of Backpost:

I’m an editor at a men’s mag that’s done some work with Red Bull in the past. Last week they invited me to appear in a “penalty-kick contest” involving “Red Bull athletes and very select media” at halftime of the Grand Opening of Red Bull Arena.

I said I’d like to do it, but would have my four-year-old son at the game with me, and hoped that wouldn’t be a problem. They said it wouldn’t be; I was in; and I picked out my corner right then and there (if it was going to be one shot only, I was going right side, upper 90!).

Red Bull kindly provided us seating in its VIP section, and we were told an RB rep would come meet us in our seats in the 35th minute to take us to the field. Around that time, the rep calls me on my cell. He says he’s on his way, and asks what we are wearing so he can spot us in the crowd. I tell him, and say we’ll go out into the aisle of our section so he can find us easily. So far so good.

My son and I head out into the aisle and wait, but there’s no sign of the guy. Several minutes go by. We walk up to the platform just above the VIP section. Still nothing.

My cell rings in the 41st minute. I pick up just as a tremendous roar explodes in the stadium, and I see Mike Petke charging toward the corner, having apparently just potted the Red Bulls’ second goal. The place is so loud I can’t hear a thing on the phone.

We hang up, and when the noise settles I call the Red Bull contact. He’s calling me as well. I pick him up off call-waiting but then there’s another explosion from the crowd. Dane Richards has just hammered in the Red Bulls’ third goal from outside the box on the right.

The place is going nuts, again. I can’t hear the Red Bull rep, again.

I do make out a couple of scraps: “Near the TV platform” and “I’m right by the cameras”….  There is a TV cameraman directly to my left, but no sign of a Red Bull employee in his blue blazer. Then I see him, about 15 yards down the platform aisle, just outside the section next to the one we were sitting in. We hustle over, and there’s an editor from GQ and his son there as well.

Our rep is joined by another, tenser, RB employee with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie and an attitude of ‘Let’s go! You’re late!” They start promenading us down to the field. We nearly walk smack into the Red Bull and Santos players as they’re coming off for halftime. Clipboard–walkie-talkie guy clotheslines us out of their way. Literally. Here they come: Ibrahim Salou is a big fella. Ditto John Agudelo. My son spots Juan Pablo Angel (knee injury) in a sweatshirt. I wouldn’t have seen him otherwise. A couple of the Santos players look like they are not old enough to drive.

They pass by and we are hustled on to the field. The excitement quotient in the kids immediately spikes. We have to herd them over to the side, where they’ll be contained (we hope) by the tardy RB rep.

Clipboard guy then shoves us—again, literally—in the direction of a female Red Bull employee who’s wearing a headset and standing in a tunnel entrance in front of a group that includes New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush, skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, Melrose Place (and MLS) Alum Andrew Shue, some attractive young ladies I don’t recognize, some X-games looking dudes, and legendary Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids. They are all wearing Red Bull shirts of one kind or another.

Headset lady looks at me and the GQ editor and signals to clipboard guy. It’s a cross between the swirling-finger of ‘wrap it up’ and the slitting-throat of ‘cut’. I’m not sure what she means by it, but it doesn’t seem good. Then she shakes her head: “We’re all full; it’s all set.”

Just like that, we are out! They usher us back over to the side of the field and we watch the event unfold from the right sideline.

So that’s how I missed not only a chance to shoot a penalty on the field at Red Bull Arena, but also two of the Red Bulls three goals in their Grand Opening exhibition against Santos FC.

Still, it was a great time, my son and I met Davids after the penalty-kick event (not a big fella), and that stadium is a special place.

Red Bull Arena Opening to Remain Grand, Despite Absence of Angel, Robinho

Red Bull New York striker Juan Pablo Angel is nursing a knee injury and Brazilian international Robinho picked up a thigh strain, so both players will sit out tomorrow night’s friendly between RBNY and Santos, which marks the Grand Opening of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.

While it’s disappointing that the teams’ marquee players will be on the sidelines, it doesn’t detract from the genuinely historic occasion: the New York–New Jersey area, one of the cradles of soccer in this country—the region that birthed the Cosmos and brought Pele to the U.S., that bred John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Tony Meola, Claudio Reyna, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and many other U.S. stars—will finally have its own soccer stadium.

And not just any stadium: This place is gorgeous (except for the parking lots, which at this point have yet to be paved). It should not only draw crowds and create a great atmosphere, but also help produce better quality soccer than its predecessor in East Rutherford. Seriously: We’ve talked to multiple former MetroBull players about it, and they were unanimous in their opinion that Giants Stadium was not just unsuitable, but actually a negative, a place with no home-field advantage that would wear players down physically and mentally, and generally hinder the ability to play good soccer.

There’s also the chance to see the Red Bulls’ new players in action (Roy Miller, Joel Lindpere, some of the rookies), to get a feel for how the Erik SolerHans Backe regime is shaping up, and to see a stylish Brazilian team in action.

In the pomp-and-circumstances department, there will be appearances by Super Bowl–winning running back Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints, Olympic skiing gold medalist Lindsey Vonn and other celebrity types.

Finally, we will be there (hopefully shooting video), and a very, very close associate of Backpost—some say they’ve never been seen in the same room—will take part in some kind of penalty-kick event during halftime, down on the field. We’re not clear on the format, but come out and watch him sky it over the bar while falling on his keister, John Terry-style.

The game is also on the tube: Fox Soccer Channel and MSG at 6:00 EST.