FIRST-PLACE RED BULLS PUT ON TACTICAL LESSON IN WIN VS. SPORTING KC

Here’s one word to describe the Red Bulls’ 3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City last Saturday: Clinical.

Despite having just 35 percent of possession, 22 fewer attempts on goal and 219 fewer passes than Sporting KC, New York made the most of its chances. With three lightning-quick counterattacks, the Red Bulls were able to steal three points on the road and take first place in Eastern Conference. Even the players admitted that it wasn’t the prettiest of matches.

“No style points but a counter attacking lesson put on by us tonight! Huge win. Hoping my boy @iamkosukekimura is alright”.#RBNY #1stplace

In the end, the only statistic that mattered was the final score.

It was a masterful tactical performance from head coach Mike Petke, setting up his side to play on the break. The plan was simple: Defend deep in the Red Bulls own half, get the ball quickly up the field and punish Sporting KC for committing men forward. This wasn’t a Barcelona-style tiki-taka, with intricate short passes; this was direct soccer, going right at a stretched Sporting defense with wing play being a major component of the victory.

The first goal scored is a perfect example of this. Dax McCarty was able to win the ball in midfield and quickly send a defense-splitting pass forward, finding the perfectly timed run of Jonny Steele. The Northern Irish winger beat the offside trap and fired a tracer of a shot past Sporting KC goalie Brian Nielsen to open the scoring.

The Red Bulls went into halftime tied after Kei Kamara equalized late in the first half, but Petke was able to change the shape of the game in the second half. He brought Lloyd Sam on in the 60th minute for Eric Alexander to play right midfield. The result was two goals in six minutes, with the Englishmen at the center of both tallies. Ibrahim Sekagya – who was making his Red Bull debut playing in center midfield in place of the injured Tim Cahill – found Sam streaking down the right wing. Sam laid off a deft little pass to the onrushing Fabian Espindola, who bore in on goal. Espindola fired a bullet far post to beat Nielsen and give the Red Bulls the lead in the 63rd minute. In a blink of an eye, the Red Bulls seized control of the game.

The game-winning goal was a classic transition from defense to attack, starting all the way at the back with Luis Robles. The Red Bulls’ goalkeeper made a save and began the attack with an Eli Manning-like heave down the field to Steele. With most of Sporting players up the other side of the pitch, Steele and Sam rushed up the field and made Kansas City pay for their numbers forward. Steele sent a tantalizing cross into the area, where Sam jumped onto it. The winger shimmied onto his left foot and placed a perfect shot into the back of the net for New York’s third score.

After Sam’s goal, it looked like the Alamo, with the Red Bulls fighting off attack after attack from Sporting KC. Although the home side would pull a goal back in stoppage time, New York held on and recorded its first road win since May 4. It must have been so satisfying for Petke to come up with the perfect gameplan and have his team climb to the summit of the East by winning away from Red Bull Arena.

“Sporting are a phenomenal team and they showed that [Saturday],” he told MLSSoccer.com’s Franco Panizo after the game. “We knew it was going to be tough coming into this game, we knew how well they play at home and we were looking more to do a bit of counterattacking today and the counterattacking goals, they worked to a tee.”

UP NEXT: COLUMBUS CREW

After recording two straight wins over two of MLS’s top teams, the first-place Red Bulls look to keep the momentum going with a matchup against the Columbus Crew Saturday.

While the Crew is languishing in the bottom of the standings, they still pose a tough challenge, especially with their attacking talent. Dominic Oduro is tied for fifth in MLS with nine goals scored and Federico Higuain – brother of star Argentina forward Gonzalo – is the top assist man, with six this season.

The man to watch will be Higuain, who plays in the creative/attacking midfield role for Columbus. Most of Columbus’ attacks flow through the Argentinean playmaker and Petke will no doubt be wary of threat from the 28-year-old.

For Petke, he’ll be interested to see if the Red Bulls can keep the momentum going after two emotional victories. After striving all season long to get to first place, any slip up would be considered a major disappointment. Despite holding a two-point advantage over Sporting Kansas City and a three-point lead over third-place Montreal, New York’s lead is precarious with Montreal having two games in hand.

Nevertheless, with the character team has shown in the past two weeks, it would be startling to see nothing less than a solid performance.