There has been a conspiracy afoot in MLS for the last couple of weeks. Since Tim Cahill nabbed a last-minute equalizer to make Red Bull Arena celebrate a home draw like it was a championship title, the New York Red Bulls have sat idle, while the rest of the league stumbled, apparently determined to keep Mike Petke's men at the top of the Supporters' Shield table. By the time this weekend of league play rolled around, an unexpected path to a first-ever major trophy had opened up for New York: win both remaining games and win the Shield.
It's a cruel trick to play on the club with a perfect record of not winning trophies. The Sounders could have won the Shield outright just by winning their games in hand, but instead opted for a four-in-a-row (and counting) losing streak and a swan dive down the standings. Kansas City might have taken matters beyond the Red Bulls' control by taking six points from their last two games, but modestly settled for a mere four. Portland graciously stalled their run at the regular season title, with a couple of draws either side of killing off Seattle's chances. Even relentlessly consistent Real Salt Lake ducked out of the hunt by allowing FC Dallas to snatch a point off them, at home. The message from the league heading in to the penultimate round of the 2013 regular season was clear: go ahead, New York, win something. We dare you.
For a team not historically adept at managing pressure, conditions were ripe for failure. This week's opponent, Houston, tends to have the better of New York. Yes, the Red Bulls' last visit to BBVA Compass stadium returned four goals, three points, and made Thierry Henry king of the internet for a day or two. But the usual result for New York in Houston is not a win, and the only thing more banged up than Petke's team prior to this match was the BBVA pitch. The Dynamo, by contrast, were essentially fully fit for the first time in their three meetings with New York this season. The past, the present, and the balance of probability (how does New York beat Houston three times in one year?) were aligned against the Red Bulls.
It took Tim Cahill eight seconds to make a mess of history. From the kick-off, the Red Bulls essayed a move they apparently (according to post-match reports) worked out on the training ground: pass back to the midfield, long ball over the top, see what happens. On this occasion, what happened was Dax McCarty's lofted ball ricocheted off Cahill, bounced high off the wretched Houston pitch, and got slammed past Tally Hall for New York's first goal.
Cahill's why-the-hell-not volley from outside the area was the fastest goal ever scored in MLS. And it provided an unexpectedly defiant riposte to the league: we're winning something; come and get us. The Dynamo did their damnedest.
Injuries left the Red Bulls without a match-fit left back, so Brandon Barklage was seconded to the position for this game. Mindful of Houston's big men, Petke broke up his favored center back pairing, shuttling Markus Holgersson over to right back, while slotting Ibrahim Sekagya into the middle of defense with Jamison Olave. Support on the flanks came from the standard not-really-wingers pairing of Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele; Dax McCarty took the holding midfield role. As a defensive unit, they were outstanding.
The early goal and Houston's home advantage combined for an excruciating first half. The Red Bulls allowed themselves to be pushed back deeper and deeper, making clearances increasingly less likely to reach the stranded attacking trio of Cahill, Thierry Henry and Peguy Luyindula. Houston found ample possession, space on both flanks, and set about raining in crosses, punctuated by the occasional shot from distance. It takes a little luck to withstand such pressure. Still, the makeshift back line covered each other's inevitable positional lapses, and held firm. At least, until the 33rd minute, when the marking on a corner gave way to a clown-car effort by four defenders to fit into the same corner of the six yard box. The ball bobbled to Will Bruin, who drilled it at goal -- Luis Robles blocked the shot on the line.
A similar pattern governed the early stages of the second half: Houston attacked freely; New York occasionally countered. Overall, the Red Bulls took a statistical thrashing. They conceded more than 60% of possession; they were out-passed (Houston attempted 450 to New York's 277), out-crossed (31 to 15), and out-shot (20 to 5). But they weren't outscored.
The Dynamo's day was summed up in the 52nd minute, when they still trailed by a single goal and looked to be closing on an equalizer. Jamison Olave is generally the man to bail New York out of trouble, but on this occasion he created it with a too-soft back pass to the 'keeper. Bruin surged on to the ball, denied only by a frantic Robles, who caught half ball, half Bruin with a desperate kick. The shanked clearance squirted across the face of goal to Barklage, who booted the ball to Ricardo Clark. With the defense out of position, Clark advanced, picked his spot, and scuffed his shot wide. So wide, the ball clipped the prostrate Bruin on its way out of play.
On another day, your opponent doesn't score from the kick-off and those chances are taken. But New York dodged every bullet Houston fired, then found the target with the scant opportunities they were permitted. First, in the 65th minute, after a distressingly inept attempt at a break from Eric Alexander and Peguy Luyindula, a poorly cleared corner allowed Luyindula to make amends. He headed the ball back to the far post, where Sekagya nodded in for his first goal as a (New York) Red Bull. It was a timely redemption for Luyindula, who did not deserve to have his work in this game remembered as a penalty-box stumble. The goal-shy forward appears to have successfully reinvented himself as an attacking central midfielder, and his work in at least trying to control New York's possession was critical to the result.
The final goal was also redemptive, this time for Bradley Wright-Phillips, finally recovered from the injury he sustained during last month's game against Dallas. Last time New York played Houston, BWP triggered a Dynamo defensive error which gifted a goal to Thierry Henry. This time around, he benefited from a similar mistake: Alexander one-touched a pass into the box, which was intercepted, ricocheted off Corey Ashe, and into Wright-Phillips's path. If his extraordinary luck against the Dynamo suggested he might be part leprechaun, his heel-clicking goal celebrationall but confirmed it.
The hunt for the Supporters' Shield is still on, although the final hurdle could be the most daunting. Chicago Fire are led by Mike Magee -- quite literally, once a Metro -- who is on a quest to win the league MVP award, Golden Boot, and a playoff place for his hometown club. Since acquiring Magee on June 1st, the Fire have accrued the most points in MLS: 41 from 22 games (the Red Bulls have 34 from 18 in that time). Additionally, they will bring New Jersey's own Dilly Duka, as well as the man who twice scored the first ever goal at Red Bull Arena, Joel Lindpere. Furthermore, it's quite likely Chicago will need to win in order to secure the playoff place their form deserves.
The Red Bulls will host a Fire that is not only hot, but stoked by ambition and local knowledge. This could well be the most spectacular fall from the cusp of glory yet. We will know whether New York must win against the Fire before kick-off -- all three of our Shield rivals (Kansas City, Portland, Salt Lake) play earlier in the week. But it's unlikely Chivas USA will beat either the Timbers or RSL, and even more improbable that such results will coincide with a win for Philadelphia Union over Sporting KC.
Stranger things have happened this season, of course: New York Red Bulls are three points away from winning the Supporters' Shield. Personally, I expect the Red Bulls to need those three points, in the most significant match the team has played since the Arena opened. It won't be easy, it probably won't be pretty, and the result is far from assured. But I, for one, intend to enjoy it.