Well, that was special.
No one likes to watch their team lose. Especially at home. Especially on the first Saturday-night-in-Harrison fixture of the season. Especially in front of a busy Arena, crowd geed up by a three-wins-out-of-four unbeaten streak. Especially when, after 45 minutes, the home team was winning against the inept, winless, bottom-of-the-league Chicago Fire.
But if you were not in some way entertained by this match, you may want to think about watching a different sport. Every team loses - some more than others - but few lose like this.
This was not a good game. When a match is decided by the odd goal in nine, something has gone wrong for both teams. Conceding four or five goals is as much, if not more, about disastrous defending as it is about magnificent attacking play. And that about sums this game up: it was a magnificent disaster.
From the perspective of the New York Red Bulls, this was the exceptional poor fortune we were owed after last week's exceptional good fortune. When you travel halfway across the country to play a team blighted by suspensions and injuries, and which is almost immediately hamstrung by a red card, and which contrives to miss a penalty, you must consider yourself lucky. When you win that game, you acknowledge the fact that the soccer gods bent over backwards to accommodate your quest for points.
The soccer gods don't always even things up so quickly as the very next week, but the unusual collusion of exceptional things which brought the Fire its first win of this season suggests divine intervention. Fine. It's best to settle a debt quickly. RBNY owed the soccer gods after last week's smash-and-grab in Dallas. The soccer gods were indulgent last week and vengeful on this occasion. Hopefully, that makes us even.
This is not to suggest Chicago's victory was in any way undeserved. The Fire must get credit for having spent the entire season to date being pummeled by fate and taunted by destiny, but still bringing fight and urgency on its trip to New Jersey.
There are plenty of players on both teams who remember last season's climactic 5-2, shield-clinching win for the New York Red Bulls over the Fire. It was a game which cost Chicago's coach, Frank Klopas, his job. And he left behind a squad which started the season hell-bent on costing the new manager, Frank Yallop, his sanity. But, with little evidence to suggest they had anything to look forward to, the Fire came to play.
The tenor of this match was established early. Both teams scored quickly: 1-1 after six minutes. It was going to be one of those games.
Four minutes in, Harrison Shipp - remember that name, it's likely to come up often this season - chipped a ball over the top for Mike Magee, who let it bounce past him and into the net. Magee was offside. He didn't touch the ball, but this is irrelevant - his presence brought Robles off his line, and the 'keeper was clearly tracking the Fire forward's movement. The offside flag went up as the ball bounce into RBNY's goal, but the referee, Kevin Stott, lost his mind and let the goal stand.
More than a few people will sit down with Stott to explain the nuances of the offside rule and the concept of the active and passive player in these situations. Fortunately for Stott, he presided over a textbook example of referee cluelessness in this regard, so he ought to be able to digest the lesson fairly swiftly. It's unlikely he'll make the same mistake again.
The Red Bulls responded as every team must in these situations: get a goal back and move on. In the sixth minute, Eric Alexander was inexplicably given all the time he needed to queue up a cross from the left (so much so, he made the cross with his right foot) - Tim Cahill headed home. His first goal of the season in his last game before World Cup duty takes him away from Harrison for a few weeks.
The teams traded chances after that - Jamison Olave missed a good opportunity, Mike Magee missed a better one - and then, in the 40th minute, Benji Joya was bullied off the ball in midfield, Thierry Henry took the ball into space, dragging defenders toward him, and flicked a cross to Bradley Wright-Phillips for a one-touch finish. 2-1 at half-time, Stott's moment of madness a distant memory, RBNY was on its way to another three points.
Or not. The first fifteen minutes of the second half was one of the most humiliating periods of RBNY's history at the Arena. Defensive blunder was followed by defensive blunder.
In the 49th minute, Jeff Larentowicz played a ball over the top for Quincy Amarikwa. Kosuke Kimura, clearly mindful of Amarikwa's pace, took off early to track the cross. As he ran toward goal, Luis Robles came out. Both players had the same objective: intercept the pass. Neither could, because each was in the other's way - and besides, the ball was already landing on Amarikwa's head and being glanced into goal. 2-2.
The next goal owed much to Amarikwa as well. He received the ball on RBNY's left flank, danced a little with Armando, who won the ball and promptly lost it to Patrick Nyarko. Armando thought he was fouled and flailed about pleading for the whistle. But Eric Alexander was covering the back line. Amarikwa made an off-the-ball run that Alexander had to follow, space opened up in the box, Nyarko found Shipp in that space, and Shipp threaded a shot past Olave and Robles. 3-2 to the Fire in the 53rd minute.
On the TV, Shep Messing - correctly - berated Armando for taking himself out of the game with his referee-baiting antics. As any coach will tell you, there isn't much of a contribution to be made if you're not on your feet.
It was a troubling goal because it suggested RBNY's back line was not playing smart. Five minutes later, Harrison Shipp confirmed the suspicion.
One of the persistent concerns with the Red Bulls' defense this season has been the team's commitment to playing the ball out of the back even when there is neither time nor space to do so. Confidence in one's ability and adherence to tactical principle is wonderful - but it too often seems to be at the expense of common sense with RBNY's defenders.
In the 58th minute, Jamison Olave chased down an over-hit pass intended for Mike Magee. The center back could have knocked the ball out of play. But he did not.
Instead, he held the ball up, drew Magee to him and played the ball back to Kimura. Since he was facing his own goal, Olave couldn't see Shipp jogging forward to add pressure to the situation. Olave's pass reached Kimura just before Shipp did. Still, Kimura had just enough time to hammer the ball out of play. But he did not.
The right back tried to beat Shipp on the dribble, and got made to look an idiot. The Fire midfielder took off with the ball into the penalty area, Kimura trailing him, Olave stranded, just Armando in position to offer any resistance. Amarikwa, again, made just the right sort of run into an area requiring Armando's attention. The center back had a difficult decision: cover Amarikwa or challenge Shipp. He did neither.
Shipp dribbled into the six yard box and squeezed his shot round Robles. 4-2.
It was, as Steve Cangialosi suggested, a Shipp-show in Harrison.
The humiliation was not yet complete. The Fire was essentially scoring a goal every five minutes. The capper came in the 64th minute. Shipp pushed the ball wide to Nyarko, who one-timed a cross to the far post. Inside the far post. Chicago had successfully avenged the memories of all the recent humblings suffered in Harrison.
Nyarko's goal may not have been intentional, but it was as unlikely and extraordinary as the special Henry effort which beat the Fire on that blazing hot day back in 2012. And the scoreline - 5-2 - neatly mirrored that of Chicago's last visit to the Arena.
The last winless team in MLS was exorcising just about every demon it could think of in front of an incredulous crowd.
For RBNY, the match was lost. The only question remaining was whether New York would bunker and seek to minimize any further damage, or have a go at getting back into the game. Mike Petke was getting the substitutes ready before Nyarko's goal went in, so let the record reflect he was prepared to chase the game before it got entirely out of hand.
Petke's in-game management is still a work in progress. So he should be credited with making a bold decision: Kimura came off for Peguy Luyindula, Jonny Steele came on for Alexander, and the Red Bulls moved into a formation dangerously close to a 3-4-3. With overlapping full backs. Olave, in particular, spent most of the last twenty minutes hammering up the wing. Don't say Petke can't set the team up for all-out attack.
It almost paid off. No sooner had the subs arrived, then Luyindula's first touch found Steele wide on the left for a cross which bounced off Lloyd Sam's chest and allowed BWP to fire past Sean Johnson from the edge of the area. 5-3 in the 67th minute.
Ten minutes later, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado dragged Henry down in the box, and BWP converted the penalty to notch his second consecutive hat trick at the Arena. It was also the second hat trick of the game - the first time any MLS match has featured two players bagging three goals apiece.
It was to be the final goal of the game, but not for lack of trying on the part of the Red Bulls. Henry had, perhaps, the best of the chances: one looking easier than the other, and drawing the most important save of the night from Sean Johnson.
RBNY has suffered refereeing errors before - and fell victim to one here. The team has defended badly with some consistency this season - and did so again here. The team is oddly susceptible to feisty visitors who have been written off before the game starts (Hi Chivas!) - this story too is familiar. The early part of this season has been defined by match-altering saves from Luis Robles - he was due an off day, and he had one on this occasion (every one of Chicago's shots on target went in). The team is often bailed out by its captain - but Henry's best chance of the game was stifled by the best save of game.
You don't get to win every game you play on the back of extraordinary performances from your goalkeeper, or brilliance from your best player, or even because you have a striker who cannot stop scoring. The truth of this season to date has been obvious to those watching the team closely: RBNY is winning in spite of itself.
This is the second time this year the team's defensive frailties have been thoroughly exploited - the first was on opening day, in Vancouver. On the bright side, not every future opponent will score five goals against us (we hope). Not every referee will fail to comprehend the rules of the game. Robles will still have days when he bails out the defense. Henry is having a very good season. So too is BWP, Lloyd Sam, Eric Alexander and Peguy Luyindula. Tim Cahill will be back in July with a point to prove.
If the team keeps scoring four goals a game at home, it will win most of its home games. It will make the playoffs. But if the defense isn't fixed, there will be a few more thrashings as well. The frequency of those thrashings is the key to this season.