Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Red Bulls 2 Galaxy 0: One Step Closer to the Postseason

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The Red Bulls began play on Tuesday night with only the slimmest margin for error in their chase for an MLS playoff spot.  A loss against a depleted Los Angeles Galaxy team would have shoveled the first spadeful of dirt on RBNY's 2011 season. A draw, while keeping New York mathematically alive in the race, would have made things very tricky coming down the stretch, with games against Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia Union still to come. Only a victory would give the team a bit of badly-needed breathing space and make things difficult for the other teams, such as DC United and Portland Timbers, scrambling for a chance at postseason glory.

If there was an added sense of urgency on Tuesday night, however, it was hard to detect in the opening exchanges. The Galaxy, missing a host of players including Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Sean Franklin and Chris Birchall, gave as good as they got in the first half hour, with Frank Rost called on several times to clear away danger. Rafa Marquez, roundly criticized for his weak display in Toronto on Saturday, was having another off night as well. The passing from both teams was sloppy and quality was hard to find. Things did not look promising for Red Bulls' fans. 

The one Red Bulls player who did look sharp early on was Luke Rodgers. And it was Rodgers who would give RBNY the opening they so badly needed almost exactly on the half hour mark. A Joel Lindpere corner was directed emphatically at Donovan Ricketts by the head of Jan Gunnar Solli. Ricketts could only parry the header away, and Rodgers pounced quickly on the rebound, making it 1-0. It was a true "poacher's goal," but such a vital one to the Red Bulls' playoff hopes. 

Rodgers had a golden opportunity to double the lead before halftime, when Henry received a pass seven yards from goal and laid the ball off to the Englishman. But Rodgers' powerful shot rebounded off the inside of Ricketts' right post. Red Bulls fans had to be hoping, as they went about their business at halftime, that they would not come to regret the miss. At the very least, New York had snapped out of its early game funk and was starting to dominate a visibly exhausted Galaxy. Still, the threat of a David Beckham free kick or a long distance rocket from Juninho was very real and could have brought L.A. level in the blink of an eye.

The Galaxy did start the second half with a little more bounce in their step, but the Red Bulls' midfield also stepped up. Marquez has had, to be charitable, an up-and-down season for New York, but when he chooses to impose himself on a game he has skill and vision that few players in the league possess (Kevin McCauley at SBNation does a great job of breaking down the Marquez conundrum in his Sardines from the Trawler column this morning). The Mexican's sublime, inch-perfect pass to Thierry Henry to set up the evening's second goal is one such example. Henry still had a bit of work to do, but chipped the ball perfectly over the onrushing Ricketts to essentially decide the contest. The Red Bulls would waste a chance to add to their lead in the 81st minute, when Henry, through alone on L.A.'s goal, smacked his shot off the woodwork.  By that point it didn't matter, however. Los Angeles had run out of gas and never seriously threatened to get back into the game.

The loss is only the fourth of the year for the Galaxy, but with key players missing and the Supporters' Shield very much in their control, fans won't fret too much. For New York, on the other hand, the three points gained represent a massive step forward toward the playoffs. There's still a lot that can happen between now and the end of the season, with D.C. United possessing a game in hand and a number of fixtures remaining. The Red Bulls sit on 43 points. That could be enough to allow them to squeak into the postseason if other results fall their way, but getting to 45 or 46 would make things much more comfortable.

RBNY appears to be rounding into form at just the right moment. The return of Luke Rodgers - and his ability to link up effectively with Henry - has been vital in the recent run. If Marquez can step it up like he did in the second half on Tuesday, while the backline and Rost keep things tidy, this could be a very dangerous team come playoff time. 

Assuming they get there. One step at a time...

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