Maddening, marvelous Coundoul set for postseason debut

Goalkeeper the Red Bulls' anchor ahead of playoff opener

For the first time in his six-year career, October isn’t last call for Bouna Time.

Bouna Coundoul has been thrilling fans – for better or for worse – his entire career. And despite all those highs and lows, arguably the league’s most flamboyant goalkeeper is finally getting his first crack at the MLS Cup playoffs.

As has become his calling card, the Senegalese netminder has been alternately maddening and brilliant during 2010. But he has settled down to become an anchor for the New York Red Bulls, who open their postseason on Saturday night at San Jose in first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And after suffering through some dodgy years in Colorado at the beginning of his career, and last season’s debacle with New York, Coundoul has his best chance to add to his cult-like legend in this year’s postseason.

“I’m happy that I reached the playoffs,” Coundoul told MLSsoccer.com on Friday. “It’s the first time since [my rookie season] that I’ve had this chance. One goal has been achieved, with a bigger goal to come.”

To say it’s always an adventure when Coundoul is in nets is to do the man a great disservice. Few ‘keepers can make difficult saves look so easy as well as they can make routine saves look exciting. But the 28-year-old Coundoul is equally adept at both.

This season – his second in New York but first as the regular No. 1 – Coundoul gave Red Bulls fans typical heart attacks with a wild start to the year. After allowing 15 goals in the team’s first 10 games, he settled down dramatically as the season wore on.

With eight shutouts down the stretch – including a brilliant 11-save performance against Kansas City in early October – he finished the regular season with franchise records for clean sheets (11) and goals-against average (1.04).

In the process, he one-upped a couple of New Jersey legends.

“When you talk about the best goalkeepers in the history of the United States, you’re going to talk [about] Tony Meola and also Tim Howard,” Coundoul said of the former MetroStars icons whose marks he has now bested. “So if you break their record, maybe you are [on to] something.”

Coundoul has worked hard at cutting down on easy goals, and it’s something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his appreciative back line.

“He’s stood on his head on a number of occasions that have kind of made us look good at the same time,” Red Bulls right back Chris Albright told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s kind of fun to play in front of and he’s great in the locker room.”

But on Saturday night, Coundoul will get a fresh taste of playoff soccer, the stakes of which is something he has never experienced. His last trip to Buck Shaw Stadium back in May coughed up one of New York’s worst results of the season: He and the Red Bulls surrendered four goals to the Earthquakes after playing most of the game down a man.

Coundoul was left out to dry for much of that game, but was certainly at fault for San Jose’s second goal when he let a low shot by Joey Gjertsen squeeze through his hands and into the net. But Bouna isn’t dwelling on any low point.

“To me, as soon as the game was over, that’s it,” he said. “It was out of my mind. We just focus on the next one. [Saturday] is a game that’s a lot different than the regular season, so we come into this one more focused and ready to go from the get-go.”

In a way, Coundoul is the walking embodiment of New York’s worst-to-first turnaround. He spent the ’09 season battling for the No. 1 spot with Danny Cepero as the Red Bulls buried themselves in the basement of the Eastern Conference with the league’s worst record.

With a retooled back four and the irascible Rafa Márquez at holding mid, Coundoul has in front of him by far the best defensive unit of his career. And his newfound confidence is peaking just as New York begin their quest to win their first-ever MLS Cup.

Can RBNY’s miracle turnaround end on the ultimate high in Toronto next month?

“You’ll see,” grinned Coundoul.

Get ready for Bouna Extra Time.

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