The victory launched the Red Bulls - however temporarily - back to the top of the Eastern Conference standings and helped preserve their unblemished 2012 home record. It also may have helped inject some confidence back into a squad that was reeling from consecutive losses to divisional rivals. The true test will come, of course, when New York goes back on the road to play Sporting Kansas City in two weeks time. First, they will host the reeling Portland Timbers in a Sunday night matchup on August 19.
The Red Bulls dominated possession in what was a pretty feisty opening 45 minutes. Macoumba Kandji, who had been a thorn in New York's side a week ago (mostly because they had allowed him to) found himself up against the smallest man on the pitch, the versatile Connor Lade, who was asked to deputize at right back. Lade gave as good as he got, goading Kandji into a yellow card before earning one himself. The message the Red Bulls were sending was clear - we are not going to make it easy for you tonight.
On the offensive end, however, the first half dominance in possession was not translating into a lot of clear-cut opportunities. Sebastian Le Toux, in particular, was wasteful in the final third. The Frenchman has not yet settled in since his move from Vancouver, but he is being asked to play out on the right wing, hardly his best position. Hans Backe will need to think of a creative way to get the best out of Le Toux. He may want to consider sitting Kenny Cooper against Portland and allowing Le Toux to partner with Henry up front.
After a tight opening 15 minutes of the second half, a long, lofted cross from Roy Miller found the head of Cahill, who nodded it down to the feet of Markus Holgersson. All the Swede needed to do was apply the touch, and suddenly the Red Bulls had found their breakthrough. It was a trademark Cahill moment, and exactly the kind of thing the club was hoping to see when they brought the Australian in.
RBNY would ride their luck for the remainder of the half, ceding possession to Houston, who made a series of substitutions - bringing on Brian Ching for the ineffective Will Bruin, introducing the newly (re)acquired Ricardo Clark in midfield - aimed at sparking their attack. The closest they came to leveling the score came in the 75th minute, when Corey Ashe rattled the crossbar with a shot from distance.
In the end, the Red Bulls put the game away two minutes into stoppage time on a move involving Cahill, Thierry Henry and Jan Gunnar Solli. Cahill, seemingly pinned along the touch line, found a way to dribble around his defender and played a lovely pass through to Henry, who just barely managed to remain onside. Henry broke in on Houston keeper Tally Hall before sliding a pass across the 18-yard box to a wide open Solli. All the Norwegian had to do was tap the ball into the goal.
The win was a big confidence boost for both the Red Bulls and their fans, who were starting to wonder where the team that had looked so confident a few weeks ago after wins against DC United and Philadelphia Union had gone. If RBNY goes on a stretch run and closes out the season in style, they may look back at Friday's game as a turning point. If, on the other hand, they go out and lay an egg in Kansas City in two weeks time, nagging questions about the team's mentality will inevitably resurface.
Time will tell. For now, the Red Bulls can enjoy the weekend and see how their rivals respond to pressure.
Finally, a big thanks to the guys at the Football Factory for their game day bus service to and from Red Bull Arena. You might be able to get out to and back from the stadium for less than $20, but you probably won't have as much fun and you'll have to deal with the PATH mess or parking along the way. For anyone traveling to Red Bulls games from Manhattan, I would highly recommend giving the Football Factory bus a try (you can sign up for upcoming matches on their homepage). Did I mention there's a giant cooler of beer involved?