BULLS RUN: ON TO THE CONFERENCE FINAL FOR RED BULLS

The Red Bulls have buried another jinx on their road to the MLS Cup Final.

Whether they were known as the MetroStars or the Red Bulls, New York’s soccer franchise had never managed to beat D.C. United in postseason play … until last Saturday.

Inspired by a brilliant performance from Thierry Henry, New York survived the two-legged tie against the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team and pulled off the 3-2 aggregate victory over their bitter rivals, a team that was nine points better in the regular-season standings.

“It’s another ghost to put back in the closet,” Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke said to the media after Saturday’s match. “It wasn’t pretty at times, but we’re OK with that. We’re good at what we do and we’re good enough to advance [to the Eastern Conference Final].

So how did the Red Bulls manage to pull off the upset?

Thierry Henry Can Still Get It Done

Did you expect anything less from a man who’s won virtually every major trophy in the game?

There’s been loads of speculation about Henry’s future, but that can be put off until the end of the season. The Red Bulls’ captain turned back the clock with his play over the two legs, assisting on all three goals scored in the series. The first assist – a cheeky backheel that setup Bradley Wright-Phillips‘ series-opening strike – was one that Red Bulls fans won’t soon forget.

Bradley Wright-Phillips puts the Red Bulls ahead 1-0 over D.C. United after a beautiful back heel pass from Thierry Henry.

His role has changed since his halcyon days as a striker for Arsenal, but Henry is as dangerous as he ever was. Employed as a left-midfield playmaker by coach Petke in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the French maestro’s interplay with Wright-Phillips, and more recently Péguy Luyindula, has been nothing short of brilliant during the postseason.

“What can we say about Thierry that hasn’t been said?,” Petke said. “He always is that threat, he always possesses that ability to do something special.”

There may be one concern about Henry as the Red Bulls head into their Eastern Conference Final against New England Revolution. In his entire career with New York, Henry has never played on the unforgiving FieldTurf at Gillette Stadium in order to protect himself from the strain the playing surface inflicts on most other players. Will the skipper risk it all in the second leg against New England? It remains to be seen.

Mike Petke Gambles and Wins

It takes a lot of guts to bench your vice-captain and a designated player and that’s exactly what Petke did during the series against D.C. United.

Petke’s switched from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 and put Tim Cahill on the bench. Petke’s choice of using Luyindula in the central attacking midfielder or “No. 10” position proved to be correct. The other Frenchmen on the Red Bulls has struck up a wonderful understanding with Henry and the duo combined for the final two goals that essentially killed the tie against D.C. United.

There would have been second-guessing had the Red Bulls lost to D.C. United about the switch from Cahill to Luyindula. But Petke won’t have to answer them now. After all, his team is in the Eastern Conference Final.

Home Sweet Home

It may have been a two-legged affair on paper, but the Red Bulls ended up winning the series in the first leg at Red Bull Arena.

It seemed like the odds were against the Red Bulls of getting a result, let alone a clean sheet against D.C. United. They had played earlier that week in the play-in game against Sporting Kansas City and had fewer than 48 hours rest before playing the best team in the Eastern Conference.

But buoyed by a raucous crowd and Henry’s magnificence, the Red Bulls played arguably their best match of the season. The team’s defense – which has been less than stout for most of the season – kept a clean sheet, which is vital in any two-legged tie. By taking a 2-0 lead to the nation’s capital, the Red Bulls could opt for a more conservative, defensive gameplan in the second leg and put the onus on D.C. United to try and score two goals.

Once Luyindula scored Saturday, the series was put to bed.