On perhaps the worst night for soccer watching this season at Red Bull Arena - a chilly, windy evening with a shivering scatter of spectators amounting to perhaps half of the 13,278 tickets sold for the match - the New York Red Bulls delivered their best result of 2014. A 4-0 spanking of Houston Dynamo that continued RBNY's recent trend of turning victories into tales of redemption.
Eric Alexander took his chance to quiet the critics last week, dropping in two assists to steer RBNY past Philadelphia Union. There is always someone in any squad who fans regard as a weak link, and if it was no longer Alexander, and Roy Miller apparently lost interest in the role some time last spring, it appeared Bradley Wright-Phillips might meet the requirement.
BWP's work to date for RBNY hasn't been bad - he runs the channels, gets himself into good positions, opens up space for those around him - but he is, first and foremost, a goal scorer. He scored 43 goals in 87 appearances in England's League One over the two seasons spanning 2010 - 2012. If he manages anything similar for RBNY, he'll be the next Giovanni Savarese.
And if you are not impressed by a League One player's ability to make the grade in MLS, consider the fact it was the level both Luke Rodgers and Lloyd Sam were playing at prior to their transfers to RBNY.
But in 15 appearances as a Red Bull prior to this game, BWP had registered three goals - and that is more like Shaun Bartlett or Henry Zambrano than Savarese. Heck, Ibrahim Sekagya has two goals in 15 appearances. So it was fair to say we had not seen the best of BWP, and we had never seen him score at Red Bull Arena.
This is no longer the case. Bradley Wright-Phillips is not (yet) as loved by RBNY fans as Rodgers, or even close to the legendary status of Savarese, but he has already secured a place in league history: week 8 of 2014 shall forever be known as the first time an Englishman scored a hat trick in MLS.
That Englishman was not David Beckham, nor Jermain Defoe (though he looks a good bet to be the second). It wasn't even Darren Huckerby or Danny Dichio. It was BWP, starting a match just a day after he had missed training with a fever and was strongly rumored to be unavailable for selection.
Even in his fever dreams, Wright-Phillips cannot have imagined his fourth start of the season would have brought his second, third and fourth goals of the year. Especially when he began this game in much the way he's been playing since he arrived in New York: finding the right position to do something wrong. Six minutes into the match, Lloyd Sam floated a cross into the area, and BWP drifted between the Dynamo center backs to fashion himself an uncontested header - which he planted over the bar.
Still, one of BWP's consistent qualities since he's been playing for RBNY has been his professionalism. He is a player who knows the habits of a good striker, and he will apply them to his work over and over again, even when they are not paying off for him. This was his contribution to the Red Bulls' goals against the Union, and it was the same approach which finally brought him goals against the Dynamo.
Six minutes after missing one of the best chances he's seen all year (and he's seen some good ones), Wright-Phillips got himself back into exactly the same place: between two defenders in front of goal. The cross was from Thierry Henry this time, and it was to feet instead of head - the feet did not miss. 1-0 to the home team.
Twelve minutes after that, he was at it again. Thierry Henry bustled past Ricardo Clark and slipped a long pass down the left wing for Roy Miller to chase. Miller - who had started the sequence by stealing the ball off Tony Cascio - did extraordinary work to slide in on Warren Creavalle, steal the ball from under the right back's foot, leave the Dynamo player sprawling, and scramble back to his feet to fire a cross into the six-yard box. Wright-Phillips darted between three defenders to meet the ball at the near post and glance it into the net at the far post. It was a delicate, confident finish of the sort one does not expect from a man who had previously looked incapable of hitting a wall with his own face.
Twenty-four minutes into the game, RBNY was 2-0 up and the hat-trick was on for BWP. It would be a long time coming. His third goal was, if anything, anti-climactic. Not that anyone in the Arena begrudged Wright-Phillips his hat-trick - far from it. The Arena hasn't seen one of its own score three goals in a game since Thierry Henry beat up on Montreal back in March of 2012.
And the fans want BWP to be a success - to be the strike partner Henry has never had in Harrison, combining the rapport he shared with Rodgers, the goals of Kenny Cooper, and the guile of Fabian Espindola.
This was just one match, but it did present the suggestion Wright-Phillips might be capable of approaching those heights in tandem with Henry. His first two goals were about intelligent movement into scoring positions - striker's work, which any of the preceding three players in his position could do. He set up RBNY's third, in the 65th minute, with a smart run to connect with an Henry pass, and a first-time cross that drew Tally Hall into a panicked save (the poor man had already watch two crosses diverted past him; understandable for him to choose not to trust his defense to handle this one) which merely set up Henry for a simple finish.
New York's fourth - BWP's historic hat-trick goal - was a penalty. It was the 86th minute, and Mike Petke had earlier taken the remarkable step of allowing an actual reserve-teamer to enter the field of play as more than a last-minute time-killer. Ruben Bover was brought on for Lloyd Sam in the 83rd minute - and getting the best part of 10 minutes to show your worth is a big deal for a fringe player in this team, even if it's ten minutes at the back-end of a thumping win.
When Tony Cascio intemperately blundered into Henry in the box, Bover swept the loose ball into the net. He may not get many chances to make a positive impression on his coach this season, and he rightly took off for the corner flag to celebrate with his fellow bench-warmers. But referee Jair Marrufo had already whistled for the penalty, and the goal could not stand.
Captain Henry is the team's presumptive penalty taker, but he sensibly deferred to BWP. The captain has long had a selfless streak: remember he let Peguy Luyindula take a penalty last year to get the goal that had long eluded him in a Red Bulls shirt; and this club hasn't had a player as equally like to make goals as create them since Amado Guevara. So BWP sealed his hat-trick, and the 4-0 win, from the penalty spot.
This is unquestionably a good thing for the team. The BWP-Henry partnership is the one we can expect to be used to carry RBNY during Tim Cahill's World Cup hiatus from MLS. On the evidence of this match, it can do that - indeed, it worked so well in this match it presents Petke with a different problem: where does Cahill fit in this team?
This is a better problem than the why-the-hell-can't-we-score puzzle with which he started the year, so Petke will be pleased. The team is progressing. With a reliable front man, Henry is freed up to float all over the pitch effectively - he often strays from his assumed position, but it isn't always to the benefit of his teammates. In this game, he had a role in all the goals from three different places: as a de facto right winger for BWP's first; as a central midfield playmaker for BWP's second; and as a second striker, hunting for the open spaces in the penalty area for RBNY's latter two strikes.
This is how Henry wants to play at this stage of his career, and it is how RBNY wants him to play: happy Henry is effective Henry. And effective Henry is too much for the majority of MLS defenses.
So there is a great deal to be happy about after this match. RBNY now has 10 points. The standings don't mean a great deal at this stage of the season, but 10 points is better than seven, which was New York's total when the game kicked off. And 10 points is a hell of a lot better than four, which was all RBNY had to show for its work after six rounds of MLS.
We know this team can get it together going forward and find the sort of scoring touch to knock the fight out of an opponent. As the game ticked into its final 15 minutes, the Red Bulls were able to gently kick the ball around their own half at walking pace for almost 60 seconds before any Dynamo player bothered to challenge - it was clear the visitors were beaten.
It didn't have to be this way. The match had started relatively evenly, and if Houston had taken even one of the plentiful chances generated (the Dynamo would finish the match with more shots attempted than RBNY), this game might have worked out differently.
Petke will have noticed the troubling repetition of the defensive issues we've been watching for most of 2014. Armando panicked in the 5th minute and lunged at Giles Barnes in the box - penalty if he had made contact, or Barnes had been at all interested in drawing the foul. In the 16th minute, Andrew Driver should have equalized for Houston, but his header was weak and straight at Luis Robles. The first half ended with Driver blazing a shot over the crossbar from exactly the sort of avoidable, oops-we-shouldn't-have-done-that, error-inspired counter attack that RBNY appears all too willing to offer its opponents.
Robles didn't have to do much in this game, but he was still credited with six saves. At times, like the opening sequence of the second half, it looked as though his own defense was conspiring to prevent Robles from having a quiet night.
In addition to Houston's witless finishing, RBNY also benefited from the game being played in an unusual way for MLS 2014. The league is going through a period of overcompensating for its reputation as a physical, rough-and-tumble sort of institution. Every week, there are appeals to the Disciplinary Committee. The league's website puts out a popular feature every week in which fouls are debated in a pantomime of disapproval.
There is much agonizing over the ability of "skill players" to do their thing. We are encouraged to believe it is a good thing that nearly every instance of contact brings a whistle and a set piece. But referee Marrufo used this game to demonstrate an alternative: he let a lot of stuff go. Players fell over, looked plaintively at the ref, and were ignored. "Skill players", shockingly, were able to compete: RBNY's second goal happened because Henry won a 50/50, off-the-ball barge with Ricardo Clark, whose primary role on his team is to prevent players like Henry from enjoying themselves.
Credit the players also, however, for this unusually fluid game. Both sides adapted to Marrufo's (commendably consistent) approach to managing the game. The match did not degenerate into constant whining for calls which weren't coming, nor did the physical stuff escalate outrageously. Both sets of players, under the eye of restrained referee, delivered a pleasingly back-and-forth match which was more evenly balanced than the scoreline suggested. They played soccer. It was fun to watch.
The difference between the sides was not really reflected in the statistics: possession, pass completion, shots on goal - RBNY and Houston weren't far apart by any of these metrics. The difference between the two sides was New York had BWP and Thierry Henry working well and confidently together, and the Dynamo did not.
There is no cause to get overexcited by one big win over an opponent in a bit of a funk (Houston is now five games without a win and three games without a goal). But RBNY has played vulnerable opponents already this year and failed to take advantage.
The result, therefore, can be taken as an encouraging endorsement of Mike Petke's overriding tactical principle: pick the best 11 players and let them play. Our best players are very good. When they have the confidence of their coach, and each other, they can be a lot better than their opponents. This approach won't work every time, but when it does, it might be the most satisfying route to victory at RBNY's disposal.