The situation was bleak Sunday night: The Red Bulls were in a two-goal hole to the Portland Timbers — one of the worst teams in MLS — in the first half and looked as if they would drop points ahead of their huge clash next week vs. East-leading Sporting Kansas City.
The team was unable to string the simplest of passes and were getting cut open time and time again by the Timbers’ counter-attack. A spark was needed. It was time for Hans Backe to unveil his trump card.
Enter super sub Kenny Cooper for Roy Miller in the 36th minute.
For those that have followed Backe’s tenure as Red Bulls coach, most know that the Swede is loathed to make any subs until late in the game, let alone in the first half. But with Miller getting torched by Timbers winger Sal Zizzo – he set up both of Portland’s first-half goals with lovely assists – Backe pulled the plug on the Costa Rican. On came Cooper and the comeback was on.
In one of the most exciting games of the season, New York overcame a sluggish first 42 minutes to rally past Portland, 3-2, and stay two points behind Kansas City. Late first-half goals from Cooper (42nd minute) and Tim Cahill (45th minute) ignited a rally that Heath Pearce finished off with his game-winning header. Still, Backe was less than impressed with a win that featured a below-par performance from his team.
“The way we performed after 45 minutes, it’s a gift to have two [goals] at halftime,” the coach said in his postgame press conference. “But after the first 45, going two-down, normally you lose a game like that.”
There’s a case to be made that Backe picked the wrong starting XI for this one. Miller started at left back, while Connor Lade started at right back – an unfamiliar position for the left-footed rookie – and Sebsatien Le Toux started up front with Thierry Henry as the two strikers. Lacking fluidity, Backe switched things around with Cooper. The insertion of big striker set off a flurry of position changes: Lade moved back to left back, Le Toux went to right-sided midfield and Jan Gunnar Solli moved to right back.
The result? Solli provided two key assists from right back. His inch-perfect crosses to Cooper and Pearce were vital in the victory. While the effort picked up as soon as Cooper hit the field, it still was considered underwhelming by most of the Red Bulls after the game.
“We’re not happy with the way we performed [Sunday],” Solli said. “We were lucky to be 2-2 at halftime. In the second half, maybe we could have been able to create a few more chances.
“We obviously finished the game with three points [Sunday] which is the most important thing, but as individuals and as a group, we didn’t perform up to the standards that we set,” added Pearce.
Gaudette Fitting the Bill
The Red Bulls wouldn’t have earned all three points without Bill Gaudette’s big saves in the second half. On three separate occasions, New York’s stand-in goalie stopped one-on-one chances by Portland.
Gaudette’s stellar play in recent weeks has opened this question: If and when Ryan Meara returns to full health, who will be the Red Bulls’ starting goalie?
“We don’t know really with Ryan, if and when he will be back,” Backe said. I think it will be discussion this week with the doctors to see how bad it is or if he can still keep training. “[Gaudette’s] games he’s been playing, I don’t think he’s made a mistake so far … he’s been great.”
Gaudette downplayed his exploits after the game.
“They were just saves, that’s what you’re job is, to keep the team in the game,” he said.
His teammates were much more effusive about his play. While Cooper made a huge contribution off the bench, it was Gaudette’s saves that were just as responsible for the win.
“Kenny came on and sparked us, but I think the real hero [Sunday] was probably Billy, who did exceptional,” Cahill said.
Backe has an interesting decision to make when Meara returns to full fitness. Does he ride the hot hands of Gaudette or hope that Meara can recapture his promising form before the injury? The next few games will be huge in deciding who enters the postseason as the Red Bulls’ No. 1 goalie.
It might not have been picture perfect, but Cahill will certainly enjoy his first goal as a New York Red Bull.
The former Everton midfielder equalized the match under controversial circumstances, striking a left-footed volley into an empty net after referee Jason Anno nearly blew the whistle for a handball in the box. The goal counted, despite the protests of the Timbers’ players and coaching staff.
While Cahill was glad to get on the scoresheet, he says he’s still coming to grips with the style and play of MLS, and came away disappointed with his own play. The frenetic pace and energy of Sunday’s match took its toll on the Australian international.
“For me, [Sunday] wasn’t the greatest night,” he said. “I probably come away from here a bit down. I know we can play a lot better football. It’s difficult because my first game would probably have been [with Everton Monday against Manchester United] … the pitch was heavy on the legs and it was just like a basketball match … not overly excited with the way we played, but happy with the result.”