It was an arena that was so mystical and surreal that it felt as though it belonged in South Africa for the World Cup in June. The flags of Brazil and the United States hung from the roof at midfield, and the atmosphere was something that Major League Soccer teams have been dreaming about since the league began 15 years ago.
With the buzz that surrounded Red Bull Arena Saturday evening, it almost seemed unfair that a mere friendly was being played. Brazilian side Santos FC was in town to what may have seemed like a home game to the Brazilians with all of the white shirts that filled the stands. Red Bulls fans were out in force as well, though, and their team came to play on the field with a style that never came to be in 2009 to deliver a 3-1 victory.
New York came out strong in the opening minutes and its early pressure paid off in the 11th minute. After Ibrahim Salou was taken down just outside of the box, Joel Lindpere stepped up to take the free kick that was initially blocked by the Santos FC wall. However, the ball bounced back toward Lindpere and his half-volley found the back of the net for the first-ever goal in Red Bull Arena history.
After an initial response from Santos FC that saw Neymar do a lot of dancing on the ball without a lot of production, the Red Bulls managed to double their lead through a classic team hero. Defender Mike Petke, who is one of the most well-recognized players in franchise history (and recently named to the All-Time First XI), had his dreams come true in the 43rd minute. Carl Robinson’s corner found Tim Ream’s head, who redirected it back towards goal for Petke to finish.
The good fortunes would continue for New York just two minutes later, as Dane Richards unleashed a shot that sent the arena into an absolute frenzy. After Sinisa Ubiparipovic took the space in front of him he dished the ball to Macoumba Kandji, who switched it to a wide open Richards. The Jamaican international ripped a shot with the outside of his right foot and sent the ball into the upper 90 for an incredible finish.
Halftime would come and New York would leave the field up by three goals in the new digs. The pace of the second half would slow down, but the Red Bulls played some solid defense that visibly frustrated Santos FC. Young star Neymar and company were relegated to complaining to the referee for much of the half as New York out-muscled the Brazilians.
“Tactical-wise I am very happy with the performance,” New York Head Coach Hans Backe said.
Surely Santos FC was frustrated at the fact that the Red Bulls were passing around the visitors with such ease at one point that the crowd was chanting “Olé” for what seemed like about two dozen straight passes for New York.
Santos FC would get a consolation goal in the 90th minute when midfielder Germano headed the ball past Greg Sutton, who replaced a stellar Bouna Coundoul late in the second half. The Red Bulls would leave their stadium debut with an impressive 3-1 win and more importantly sent 25,000 people home mystified at such a gem of a stadium.
“I can’t put it into words,” Petke said of his emotions about the arena’s premier. He certainly felt strongly about that too.
“Anybody who has anything to complain about on the team tonight is going to have a word from me,” Petke said half-jokingly.