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