In this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of season for the Red Bulls, it was Mr. Hyde who showed up for Coach Mike Petke in their 2-0 defeat last Saturday to the Columbus Crew.
With Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Lloyd Sam and Kosuke Kimura out with injuries, the Red Bulls lost their first-place standing in the Eastern Conference with a setback on the road. After back-to-back wins against Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City – the two top teams in Major League Soccer – the result against the Crew will no doubt be bitterly disappointing to the Bulls coach.
It’s something Petke has been harping on for the entire season, the consistency of his team week in and week out. On a given day, the Red Bulls can beat just about anyone in the league and play a direct, effective style of soccer that is very exciting. They can win back-to-back games against RSL and Sporting KC, looking as if they'll be the favorites to lift the MLS Cup. On days like the one they had against the Crew, the consistency needed wasn’t there and they paid for it.
"We didn't come with quite the right mentality and, as a result, we kind of put ourselves behind the eight ball," Red Bulls assistant coach Robin Fraser told MLSSoccer.com.
Without Henry and Cahill, the Red Bulls lacked a cutting edge in front of goal and some creativity from midfield, something they had in abundance when they upset Sporting KC. What Petke tried to do is replicate his success against Sporting – cede possession to the Crew, play a deep defensive line and spring lightning-quick counterattacks against Columbus whenever they could. Unfortunately for New York, the execution wasn’t there.
Still, the match was in the balance for most of the second half and, if it weren’t for a dubious decision by referee Allen Chapman, the Red Bulls could have escaped Columbus with a point. Chapman called a foul on Markus Holgersson in the 62nd minute for a push in the penalty box, something that wasn’t apparent during the live broadcast or replays.
Nevertheless, Federico Higuain stepped up and dispatched the penalty past Luis Robles to give the Crew a lead they would never relinquish. Higuain’s second goal in the 76th minute – a lovely chip from outside the box – was simply world-class quality and put the finishing touches on the match.
TAKING THE HARD ROAD
The Red Bulls will be back home Saturday against the Philadelphia Union, but New York’s problem this season hasn’t been its play at Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls have been dominant at home – a 7-2-2 home record – but they have had their struggles on the road this season, where they are 4-6-3.
“I have no doubt when we play at home,” Henry said after the Red Bulls’ home win over Real Salt Lake on July 27. “But away from home, it’s not the same team. So we have to manage our game away from home better.”
Fortunately for the Red Bulls, six of their last 10 matches will be at home. One of their matches on the road is at bottom-of-the-Western-Conference Chivas USA on Aug. 25, a match that New York can target for three points. Still, if the Red Bulls truly want to contend for the Supporters’ Shield (MLS’s award for the best team during the regular season) there’s no doubt the road form must improve. With their latest setback last Saturday, it’s back to the drawing board.
A LOOK AHEAD: PHLADELPHIA UNION
It’s a tight race at the top of the Eastern Conference with the Red Bulls just one point off East-leading Sporting Kansas City with 38 points and the Philadelphia Union sitting one point behind New York.
It sets up a tantalizing fixture this Saturday, an old-fashioned “six-point” game between local rivals. A win for the Red Bulls over the Union could move them back to the top of the table, while a defeat could cost their chance at being the top seed in the East.
The season series is tied at 1-1, with the home team being the victor in both matches. On March 30, the Red Bulls recorded their first win of the Mike Petke era, taking a 2-1 result at Red Bull Arena. The Union would take their revenge on June 23, blanking New York, 3-0.
This could be a high-scoring affair, featuring two of MLS’s most dynamic offensive teams – that is, if Henry can return to full health. The Union is loaded with attacking flair with forwards Jack McInerney and Conor Casey both ranking in the Top-5 for goals scored this season. McInerney leads the Union with 10 goals in 2013 and is penalty-box predator who earned a call up to the US Men’s National Team for his performance with the Union. He’s a good foil for Casey, who’s a hulking target-man of a striker with nine goals in 2013 and a player that will test the Red Bulls’ backline with his physicality.
But the man who has been the creative spark for Philadelphia this season is former Red Bull Sebastien Le Toux. The Frenchman leads MLS with 12 assists and has taken to being played in a wide role for the Union. He played wide left in the Union’s 2-0 win over DC United last Saturday, which means he’ll try and get at Red Bulls right back Brandon Barklage. A tireless runner and a relentless attacker, Le Toux can cause all sorts of havoc and can chip in with a few goals as well.
It might be hyperbole to consider Saturday’s match as a must win, but with how tight the Eastern Conference is, the best way for the Red Bulls to help themselves is to win their remaining home games.