The Target Man: New York Has Made It

The New York Red Bulls have ridden their Cinderella story all the way to the MLS Cup final. Will they drop their glass slipper right when it matters most, or is it time for them to take their first crown?
By Greg Lalas

LOS ANGELES -- “Underdog” is not a word usually associated with New York. The city where I live is not nicknamed the Little Apple. It’s not the City That Stays Awake Late.

It’s New (bleeping) York. It’s skyscrapers and crowded sidewalks, Wall Street and Fifth Avenue, Frank Sinatra and Madison Square Garden. You either come big, or you don’t come at all.

So what are we to make of the 2008 New York Red Bulls, the little team that could? A notoriously underachieving club, they have magically made it to their first MLS Cup final, this Sunday, when they will take on the Columbus Crew, who are the best team in Major League Soccer right now.

New York is clearly the underdog. They barely made it into the playoffs. They had to survive a Herculean gauntlet of trials and tribulations, including the loss of superstar Jozy Altidore (to Spain) and captain Claudio Reyna (to retirement), two drug-related suspensions, and late-season injuries that decimated the midfield.

But somehow, all the negativity has unified them right when it matters most. Their rallying point has been a 22-year-old goalkeeper named Danny Cepero, who just over a month ago, before regular number one Jon Conway received a ten-game ban for a positive drug test, had never played in a league match and looked a likely candidate for the end-of-the-season waiver list. His performances have inspired the Red Bulls, and his story has become one of the millions in the crowded city.

These are not the New York Cosmos. They are not on the cover of magazines or leading off the sports update on NY1. Danny Cepero can’t show up at the hottest club in town and be ushered into the VIP room the way Pele & Co. used to waltz into Studio 54. Cepero couldn’t afford the mandatory bottle of booze, anyway.

New York’s one star, Juan Pablo Angel, is, in the larger sports universe, barely a twinkle in the corner of the sky. A 14-goal scorer this year, the 33-year-old Colombian is one of the most talented strikers to ever play in MLS. But he’s not a Beckham-style celebrity (nor does he have a Beckham-style contract). He isn’t showing up on Perez Hilton or causing international hysteria every time he chooses to wear a different pair of jeans.

But if the Red Bulls are going to escape the MLS Cup final without being gored, it is these two players, the young Cepero and the aging Angel, who will have to carry the team. They are facing a Columbus team that is loaded with talent, including the league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Defender of the Year Chad Marshall.

Schelotto is an old Argentine warhorse with more skill in his pinky toe than most midfielders have in their whole bodies. He won 17 league championships in Argentina, and I’m sure he’d love to add some US hardware to his trophy case.

Marshall is a tall, talented central defender whose potential-laden career seemed to be slipping away from him just a year or so ago. But he resurrected himself in 2008 and is now one of America’s best defenders who should get an opportunity with the US National Team soon.

These two are surrounded by other talented players, like youthful speedster Robbie Rogers and Venezuelan striker Alejandro Moreno. They romped through the regular season, winning the Eastern Conference and posting the best record in MLS. They are the prohibitive favorites.

Which is probably right where New York wants them. Unlike their city, they have relished the underdog role. In the first round of the playoffs, no one gave them a chance against the two-time defending champions Houston. But they tied the first game in New York, then the Red Bulls stampeded the Dynamo 3-0 in the second game in Texas.

In the next round, they were facing another Cinderella team, Real Salt Lake. Most people assumed RSL, which had upset Chivas USA in the first round, would continue their fine form, especially since they were playing at home. But New York ground out a 1-0 win on a goal scored by Dave van den Bergh.

Perhaps like no other time in the club’s sad, trophy-less history, New York looked confident in that game against RSL. They got lucky a few times -- three times, actually, as RSL shots clanged off the post -- but the confluence of luck and confidence is what has made New York, both the team and the city, something to appreciate.

As the song goes, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. Well, New York has made it here, to Los Angeles, which means, underdog or not, you’d be a fool to bet against them.

Greg Lalas is the Site Director for North America.