DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS? RED BULLS SURE HOPE SO

In his playing days before he became Red Bulls head coach, Mike Petke was a battle-hardened, no-nonsense center back, who played with his heart on his sleeve. A clean sheet was the priority for the rugged defender, by any means necessary.

It looks like he’s transmitted those hard-working traits onto the team he now coaches.

On pace to surrender fewer goals than last season, Petke has made the Red Bulls into a defensively solid unit and has guided New York to lead in the MLS Supporters’ Shield standings after the 1-0 victory over FC Dallas Sunday. Being stout defensively has been stressed by Petke ever since he was given the job as head coach and the results have shown during the Red Bulls’ current four-game winning streak.

“It just feels like we’re just maturing as a team,” Dax McCarty said after Sunday’s match. “For the most part, we’ve always been a team that can create so many brilliant moments and then have so many boneheaded moments at the same time. I think we’re kind of evening out a little bit. I think solidarity and making sure we’re solid from front to back is the key for us to win the Supporters’ Shield and making a run at MLS Cup.”

Every good defensive team starts with the players on the back line, and fortunately for the Red Bulls, it appears as if Petke has found the right formula. Since Aug. 31, New York has settled on Luis Robles in goal, Kosuke Kimura at right back, Markus Holgersson and Jamison Olave at center back and newcomer David Carney at left back. While all five players have played their roles brilliantly during the winning streak, Petke singled out special praise for Olave.

“[Olave’s] defensive play this year has been amazing,” Petke said in his post-match press conference. “You know, if you want to teach a youth soccer player how to defend, if you have to defend a player one-v-one, you should show them [film of] Olave. And he’s been immense with us.”

In turn, Petke’s players have given credit to their boss for their defensive improvement and their upturn in form this season.

“There were some things that we needed to work out in the beginning and middle of the season,” Robles said. “Even at the beginning of the season, everyone was saying that we couldn’t finish games. But if you look at the way we’ve played in their last 10 games, it’s starting to show the fruits of our labor. We’ve been diligent and disciplined, working hard each and every week and now it’s starting to come together.”

Defensive solidity sometimes comes at a price. It can be argued that the Red Bulls haven’t been as free flowing as in years past and haven’t been as intricate in their attack. Still, it’s hard to argue style points when New York is leading the MLS’s regular-season standings. All kudos must be given to the head coach, who has turned around the team from perennial underachievers to top-flight contenders in his first season at the helm. Petke is finally seeing the consistency he’s been longing for in his team.

“We’ve really redefined the way we wanted to defend as a team over the last four games,” he said. “It’s certainly not perfect, but every game you’ve seen a major step up, closing down space. To me, it’s been back to the basics with this team over the last month or so and we have to continue to hammer that away.”

GOING FOR THE SHIELD?

Petke has avoided all talk about the Red Bulls winning MLS’s Supporters’ Shield this season, but with the Red Bulls alone in first, the discussion was unavoidable after New York’s triumph Sunday. Still, the coach wouldn’t say the words “Supporters’ Shield” in his post-match presser.

“To say that I’m not concerned where we are is a bit of an exaggeration,” Petke said. “If we keep doing the things we can do and we want to do … our place [in the standings] is irrelevant.”

The Red Bulls players in the locker room were a little more open talking about the Supporters’ Shield race. Being in the top spot this late in the season has its benefits, according to McCarty.

“It feels great to not go into every game saying, ‘this is an absolute must win’,” he said. “We have that mindset because we want to win the Supporters’ Shield. We want to have the best chance to win MLS Cup. It feels good [to lead Supporters’ Shield race], but we haven’t accomplish anything yet.”

A LOOK AHEAD: SEATTLE SOUNDERS

Sunday’s match against the Seattle Sounders might be the Red Bulls’ toughest this season.

New York leads the race for the Supporters’ Shield race by one point over the Sounders, although Seattle has two games in hand on the Red Bulls. If the Red Bulls can manage to get out of Seattle with the three points, it would be a gigantic boost to their Shield chances and put them in the pole position.

But it won’t be easy.

Seattle is loaded with talent from the top on down. US Internationals Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey missed out on the Sounders’ 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy last Saturday with injuries, but both are expected to be healthy enough to be in the squad come Sunday. Obafemi Martins – a striker with experience at some of Europe’s biggest clubs – will supply the goals in case Johnson and Dempsey aren’t fit. If that isn’t enough, midfielder Lamar Neagle can get forward and score goals as well

Facing Seattle’s players is one thing; going into a cauldron of 43,000 rabid Sounders fans is another. Seattle is a formidable 10-1-3 at CenturyLink Field and a lot of its success can be attributed to the team’s tremendous fan support.

The Red Bulls will also be without Thierry Henry and Olave, as both veterans will avoid the unforgiving CenturyLink Field turf. Despite the tough road ahead, the Red Bulls say they’re going to be up for it.

“We’re not worried about Seattle,” Jonny Steele said. “We’re going to create chances anywhere we play. It’s a tough environment, a tough place to play. When you get to this level of [soccer], you want those challenges.”

 

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RED BULLS GO ALL IN FOR STRETCH DRIVE TO POSTSEASON

The motto of the famed Three Musketeers is “All for One and One for All”. No matter whatever issues arise or the differences of opinion, the group fights together for the common goal.

It appears that the Red Bulls have decided to take on a similar mindset. New York has run off three straight wins ever since a well-publicized argument between Thierry Henry and coach Mike Petke became big news late last month. While some would have assumed the disagreement would lead to discord in the squad, it has had the opposite effect and has brought the team closer together.

“Everyone is on the same page,” midfielder Dax McCarty said after the Red Bulls’ 2-0 victory over Toronto FC. “And I think that’s the one thing that the coaching staff and the players have really tried to correct.”

That includes the team captain, who has rediscovered his goalscoring touch, scoring two goals in his last two games after a seven-match drought. While the goals have been a boon for Petke, the coach also made sure to praise his star for the effort and commitment he’s been putting in lately.

[WATCH: Petke Discusses Win Over Toronto FC With Tina Cervasio]

“Thierry’s goals the last two weeks [are] a product of everybody behind him and the quality he has, of course, at the end of it. So it’s great to have him scoring two weeks in a row, but I’m equally pleased at what he’s doing aside from the goals. If you saw him [last Saturday], [you saw] Thierry Henry sprinting back 40 yards, four or five different times into our half to defend. That’s phenomenal.”

This renewed commitment has seen the Red Bulls rise to the top of the Eastern Conference and has them just a point off the Seattle Sounders for the Supporters’ Shield title. But Henry says the team isn’t getting ahead of itself.

“I’ve been in this league for a very long time now to know to not get carried away with anything,” he said.  “ …  All the games in this league are really hard,” Henry said. “We’re enjoying what we’re doing right now, but no more, no less … we cannot control what everyone else is doing and we’ll try to concentrate on us.”

[WATCH: Henry Talks to Tina Cervasio After Win vs. Toronto FC]

Will the Red Bulls be able to continue their current run all the way to a title? With the shift in mentality and the depth to compete with any team in MLS, McCarty has faith in his comrades to get the jobs done.

“I think this team believes in itself,” he said. “I think we have the players now that can make us dangerous. Once we get everyone healthy, there’s going to be some serious competition for places and I think we’re all excited about the stretch run and we think we can make some noise.”

Com-Busta-ble Element

With Tim Cahill only fit enough to be on the bench and Lloyd Sam out with a groin injury, Petke turned to young Michael Bustamante for his league debut in center midfield.

No one was more surprised that the 23-year-old himself.

“[I was] very surprised,” he said.  “… [I] wasn’t really expecting it, but I was up to the challenge and it worked out.”

[WATCH: Bustamonte Discusses First MLS Start]

Battling nerves early on in the match, the former Boston University star grew into the game and delivered a secondary assist on Henry’s 32nd-minute goal. When asked about what the captain told him before the game, Bustamonte said the advice he received was simple.

“[Henry] said, ‘just be confident and play my game,” he said. “He said I was going to be all right and make sure I completed my passes.”

After the game, Henry was effusive in praise for the young apprentice.

“Overall, I guess the story of the game for me will be how Bustamonte played,” he said. You have to give him credit because it’s not always easy to just be on the side all season and play in the reserves sometimes … then suddenly you got to play. I thought at times he played pretty well.”

Celebrate Good Times

If you haven’t had a chance to check out Tina Cervasio’s pregame report on Jonny Steele’s unique goal celebration last week in Houston, watch it here.

The Red Bulls have been trying to corner the market on goal celebrations, with Henry going with “resting on the post” celebration after his two goals.

“It’s just fun, you know?” Bradley Wright-Phillips told Tina. “I think the crowd will like it, especially if it’s at home. I think we should do it at [Red Bull Arena].”

A Look Ahead: vs. FC Dallas Sunday

The Red Bulls are back home Sunday, as they battle FC Dallas and look to keep their top standing in the East. (Coverage starts at 4:30 PM on MSG).

New York could see former Red Bull striker Kenny Cooper in the lineup, although Cooper has seen his stock fall in Dallas and has been used more as a substitute recently.

Any discussion on FC Dallas starts and begins with David Ferreira, Dallas’ star playmaker. An MLS MVP in 2010, Ferreira is a classic “No. 10”, a player who creates opportunities. The Columbian is tied for fifth in the MLS for total assists and will be public enemy No. 1 come Sunday.

The Red Bulls know that with just five games left on the schedule, every match has that much more importance, especially in a close race for the Supporters’ Shield and in the Eastern Conference.

“It’s playoff time,” Henry said. “We would have liked to be more consistent for the whole season. But it’s never too late doing it, especially [with the race for the Eastern Conference] … But as you know Dallas is a very good team and we’re going to have to fight against them [Sunday].”

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C’EST MAGNIFIQUE! DYNAMIC HENRY DOWNS DYNAMO

Mike Petke’s benching of Thierry Henry last week might have been the kick up the backside the Red Bulls’ captain needed.

After being a substitute in New York’s 2-1 triumph over DC United on Aug. 31, the Red Bulls’ head coach re-inserted Henry into the starting lineup last Sunday against the Dynamo and the team captain responded with an outstanding performance.

[READ: Cahill Inspires Red Bulls to Win Over DC United]

He played a major role in the Red Bulls’ 4-1 victory over Houston, scoring the game-winning goal and providing a secondary assist, as New York remains tied for the top of the Eastern Conference with the important win.

Thierry broke his seven-match scoreless streak in the 47th minute with a typical Henry-like finish. After a long diagonal ball from left back David Carney found the head of Bradley Wright-Phillips, Wright-Phillips’ delicately cushioned header was laid on to the path of Henry, who shimmied his way through on goal. There was only going to be one result: a calm strike past Dynamo goalie Tally Hall to give New York a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

But the former Arsenal legend wasn’t done. Henry and Wright-Phillips would combine again, this time in the 59th minute onJonny Steele’s goal. Another long pass from Carney found the magic feet of Henry, as he deftly controlled the ball. Henry flicked a one-touch pass over to Wright-Phillips, who sent a through ball on a silver platter for the on-rushing Steele. Steele rounded the goalkeeper to finish an exquisite movement from the Red Bulls that put the game out of reach.

For Petke, Sunday’s result will be a major step in the right direction. Getting Henry firing on all cylinders down the stretch is vital to the Red Bulls’ Supporters Shield chances and their hopes of winning the MLS Cup this season. At times this year, Henry has struggled to find chemistry with the various striker partners he’s been paired with. His partnership with Wright-Phillips does look encouraging, so you would think that Petke would be hesitant to break up the relationship Henry and Wright-Phillips are developing.

More importantly, it shows that Henry is on board with Petke’s philosophy going forward. Arguments like the one the captain and the coach had two weeks ago happen on every team in the world; though probably happens more often then we think. It bodes well for both coach and player that it has not led to dysfunction on the team. If anything, it looks as if the disagreement might be the spark the Red Bulls have been searching for.

ROAD WARRIORS

Have the Red Bulls finally turned the corner when it comes to playing games away from Red Bull Arena?

READ: RED BULLS’ ROAD STRUGGLES

The team sure hopes so. After over a month without a road victory, New York knuckled down and put on its best display away from home this season. It came at an opportune time, with the Red Bulls’ rivals for first place – Sporting Kansas City and the Montreal Impact – both winning this week. While the 4-1 scoreline flattered the Red Bulls somewhat, it still was a terrific result, with the team breaking the match open in the second half with three goals. The win was a huge lift and a confidence booster, according to Steele.

“It’s probably one of the better 90-minute performances on the road we’ve put in,” Steele said to MLSSoccer.com‘s Franco Panizoafter the match. “People doubted us on the road, but we had to build on last week, build on this week and we’ve got six games left. So we’ve got to keep going and push for the Supporters’ Shield.”

TIGHT AT THE TOP

The Red Bulls are just three points behind Real Salt Lake for the Supporters’ Shield – an award given to the best regular-season team in MLS – and are tied with Sporting and Montreal with 45 points at the top of the Eastern Conference.

While the Red Bulls aren’t in control of their destiny for the East’s No. 1 seed, they are in pretty good position and have a favorable schedule coming their way.

Montreal has the inside track for the Conference since it has two games in hand on the Red Bulls and Sporting. But the Impact is also playing in the CONCACAF Champions League and will have its roster depth with extra matches. Of the eight remaining matches on Montreal’s schedule, five are away from home, including a late cross-country trip to Los Angeles to take on the Galaxy.

Sporting also has Champions League commitments in its final stretch of matches, as well as tricky games away in Columbus and Philadelphia during the final month of the season, as well as four of its six matches away from home.

The Red Bulls have four of their six remaining games at home, but five of those matches involve teams battling for playoff positioning. Still, with the majority of matches at Red Bull Arena, Petke and company will take their chances heading into the homestretch.

A LOOK AHEAD: VS. TORONTO FC

For the first time this season, the Red Bulls play host to Toronto FC and look to take the season series from the Canadian club Saturday (Live coverage begins at 6:30 PM on MSG).

While Toronto FC is next-to-bottom in the Eastern Conference standings, TFC has given the Red Bulls trouble in their previous encounters. It took a late winner from Tim Cahill for New York to leave Toronto with three points back on April 27 and Toronto FC was able to frustrate the Red Bulls on July 20, holding them to a 0-0 draw.

WATCH: RED BULLS REACTION FROM APRIL 27 MATCH

WATCH: GAME BREAK DOWN FROM JULY 20 MATCH

But with every match meaning so much, Petke will no doubt have Saturday’s home match earmarked for a win. Toronto has been woeful away from home – just 2-9-3 – and the Red Bulls must be licking their lips at the prospect of a home victory.

Toronto is a team that doesn’t score many goals and the guess here is that TFC head coach Ryan Nelson – a former defender in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers and Queens Park Rangers – will look to sit very deep in their own half and look to grab something on the counter. The onus will be on the Red Bulls to break Toronto down and find a clear-cut chance to break the game open.

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AUSSIE-OME! INSPIRED CAHILL LEADS RED BULLS TO WIN VS. DC UNITED

TighIn the midst of a three-game winless streak, the Red Bulls were searching for inspiration. Little did they know they would find it in the form of a 10-year-old boy singing the national anthem.

Oh, that 10-year-old boy? He just so happens to be Kyah Cahill, Tim Cahill‘s son.

Pushed on by his little boy’s rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the Red Bulls designated player took last Saturday’s game by the scruff of the neck as he contributed a goal and an assist in New York’s 2-1 home win over DC United. It meant everything for Cahill to see his son perform and he said it gave him the motivation needed to put on a Man-of-the-Match performance.

“I said to the lads straight after [the anthem], ‘if that doesn’t give you motivation, for the fans, for yourselves, I don’t know what will,’” Cahill said. “You could see [Saturday], we needed energy, we needed a reaction from the last three games. We needed to show that we could play with no fear and I suppose [Saturday] that’s what happened.”

It was a fearless outing from Cahill, who suffered a right ankle injury early on in the match after a reckless two-footed challenge from DC United’s Dejan Jakovic in the eighth minute. Despite the knock, the former Everton star found the reserve to fight through the pain and lead by example. Wearing the captain’s armband for the match, Cahill believed the added responsibility allowed him to thrive against DC United.

“I’ve said from the start, even at Everton, I’ve never needed the captain’s armband to lead this team,” he said. “The boys know that I’m a true leader and I’ll fight to the end.”

Playing in an advanced forward position instead of his normal place in center midfield, Cahill and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips caused all sorts of havoc across the DC United backline. Lloyd Sam – the Red Bulls’ other scorer Saturday – and Jonny Steele did the damage from out wide, sending in tantalizing crosses for Wright-Phillips and Cahill to attack.

“It was up to me and Bradley Wright to set the tempo, put the onus on their defense and make them uncomfortable,” he said after the match. “If they kick the ball long, then we’ve done our job.

Cahill’s 38th minute-goal – two minutes after United had equalized – was a typical goal from the Australian. Steele’s inch-perfect cross found the head of a leaping Cahill, who nodded past a helpless Bill Hamid to give New York a lead they would never surrender.

It was the perfect response for the Red Bulls as they were able to get the three points and join a crowded first place atop the Eastern Conference. Cahill was quick to praise his teammates for the shift they put in.

“In the end, a complete performance by the team,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about. We’re a team that should leave everything on the pitch. I’m proud of the boys and the team. For the fans, they got what they deserved.”

NOT PAYING THE PENALTY

The Red Bulls might not have gotten the win if it weren’t for the heroics of Luis Robles.

With New York up 2-1 in the 73rd minute, Robles was called upon to stop DC United’s Dwayne De Rosario from the penalty spot, after a foul and a red card were given to the Red Bulls’ Ibrahim Sekagya. But the keeper was up to the task and was able to deny De Rosario an equalizing goal.

“[The penalty save] was incredible because it gave us a bit of a boost,” Red Bulls coach Mike Petke said in his post-game press conference. “We’re down a man, they tie it up right there, and then it’s going to be a real dogfight, so very big game changer.”

Robles said that he had an inkling of where De Rosario was going to send his spot kick, despite the DC United forward’s best efforts to deceive the goalie.

“I felt like he was trying to trip me up,” he said. “I know he did a couple of things very clever forwards try to do to trip the goalie. I felt confident in where it was going and luckily I went the right way.”

The reason why Robles was so confident was that he had done his homework.  David Lee, the Red Bulls’ Performance Analyst, revealed later in a tweet of De Rosario’s last 12 penalty attempts, nine of which went to the goalkeeper’s right side.

HENRY ON THE BENCH

According to Big Apple Soccer’s Kristian Dyer, a heated argument flared up in training last week between Petke and Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry.

Henry was on the bench at the start of the match against DC United, but came on as a second-half substitute to replace the injured Cahill. When asked about Henry being on the bench, Petke was all smiles and said that the relationship between player and coach is still good.

“[Henry] is an emotional fiery person, which I love about him,” Petke said. “And I’m an emotional fiery person. This happens all over the world, everywhere. It’s just news here because it’s the Red Bulls and it’s Thierry Henry. It’s really much ado about nothing. I’m a coach and I make decisions every day. I made my decision and that’s between me and the team.”

A LOOK AHEAD: AT HOUSTON DYNAMO

The Red Bulls head deep into the heart of Texas for a showdown with the Houston Dynamo Sunday (Live coverage begins at 4:30 PM on MSG).

It’s an important match for both sides as the Red Bulls attempt to keep pace in the Eastern Conference and the Dynamo try to keep their playoff hopes alive. Houston is one point behind New England for the final playoff spot in the East and will be targeting this upcoming fixture as a must-win.

The Dynamo is coming off a dramatic 1-1 draw against the Chicago Fire last Sunday as Adam Moffat’s stoppage-time equalizer gave Houston a badly needed point on the road.

Sekagya is suspended and Cahill, who would have been away with Australia on international duty if it wasn’t for his injury are both out, so it means Petke will have to reshuffle his lineup against Houston. Expect Henry to return to the starting lineup, withJamison Olave replacing Sekagya at center back.

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