Monday, September 19, 2011

Red Bulls Keep It Simple in Big D, Reap Rewards

Rodgers With Another Huge Goal (Photo by Brandon Wade, Getty Images)
The drought is finally over! After going more than two months (73 days to be exact) without a league victory, the Red Bulls pulled their act together on Saturday night and got a massive, massive three points in Frisco against FC Dallas, one of MLS' more formidable home sides. It wasn't a dominant performance by any means, but considering the list of missing players for New York, which included Roy Miller, Rafa Marquez, Jan Gunnar Solli and Thierry Henry (who did not travel due to a flare-up of his Achilles problem), the 1-0 result was just what the doctor ordered for an ailing Red Bulls squad.

To call the Red Bulls' backline against Dallas "makeshift" would be putting it mildly. Of RBNY's regular back four, only Tim Ream was in the starting XI. Carlos Mendes lined up on the left in place of Miller, while Stephen Keel stepped into central defense. Teemu Tainio and Dax McCarty comprised the central midfield tandem, while Luke Rodgers, despite concerns over his plantar fasciitis, joined Juan Agudelo up top.

The Red Bulls very easily could have been down a goal or two within the first 20 minutes, if not for Maicon Santos' horrific finishing, some desperate last-second tackles, and the steady goalkeeping of Frank Rost, who had his best game since arriving in the Big Apple. Keel and Chris Albright were having a hard time maintaining their shape on the right, leaving plenty of space for Dallas attackers. But the defense ironed out its problems as the half went along, and the Red Bulls managed to create several good chances of their own on the break. On one such occasion, Dane Richards, one on one with Kevin Hartman, just needed to loft the ball over the veteran keeper to score, but hit it directly at Hartman instead.

Eventually the Red Bulls found the breakthrough. Agudelo, set free on the right wing, slid the ball across the Dallas penalty area to an onrushing Luke Rodgers who bundled it home past Hartman. Later, Rodgers could have added an insurance goal, but hit it over the bar with Agudelo standing alone, unmarked, five feet away.

It was 1-0 at the half, with a very nervous 45 minutes to come. Hans Backe subbed out Rodgers as a precaution and brought on - who else? - Mehdi Ballouchy. The task was clear: grind out the rest of the match, kill the clock and leave town with three points. As Red Bulls fans bit their nails, the players largely stuck to their job and eventually emerged victorious. Stephen Keel in particular must be commended for overcoming his early shakiness and settling down. My Man of the Match award, however, must go to Frank Rost, who showed that it's too early to apply the "bust" label to him. Honorable mention goes to Rodgers, not only for his goal but for his work ethic throughout the first 45 minutes.

As we get down to the sharp end of the MLS season, scoreboard watching is inevitable, however much we'd just like to focus on the task at hand. The win takes RBNY back into the final wildcard playoff spot, thanks to DC United's 3-0 loss in Seattle. Calculated on a points-per-game basis, New York is still on the outside of the playoffs looking in, but they now enjoy successive home games against Real Salt Lake and Portland Timbers, and have a real chance to jump above the likes of Houston and DC if they can get a maximum return on Wednesday and Saturday. The big win in Dallas should provide a huge confidence boost for a team that has looked totally lost in recent weeks.

One positive for the RSL matchup on Wednesday is that Kyle Beckerman will be out for the visitors due to yellow card accumulation. If the Bulls can get Henry and Solli back in time, they may be able to take advantage.
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