The New York Red Bulls retook first place in the Eastern Conference with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night. Luke Rodgers scored the only goal midway through the first half, and the Red Bulls weathered a storm of Kansas City attacks in the second half to claim a third successive win.
Hans Backe didn't make any changes to the starting XI that defeated San Jose and DC United, although Carlos Mendes returned to a Red Bulls bench that only included six players, probably because the Reserves had a match earlier in the day against West Virginia University.
The Red Bulls started the match brightly, clearly in search of an early goal for the third game in succession. Unlike San Jose, KC were also interested in attacking, and neither side was able to maintain possession for an extended period. Part of this was due to the pressure New York put on the Sporting defense, but much was also down to poor passing from Kansas City in midfield and from the Red Bulls in the final third.
The first opportunity of the game arrived on 13 minutes, as a short pass from Thierry Henry found Dwayne De Rosario in the box; he felt some contact from Stephane Auvray and went down, earning New York a fairly soft penalty. Henry had had a poor spot-kick saved in the Red Bulls' opener against the Seattle Sounders, so this time the penalty responsibilities fell to Rafael Márquez. However, Márquez's effort was no better -- it was placed almost exactly as Henry's was, but on the other side of the goal, and Jimmy Nielsen saved it comfortably.
The Red Bulls took a few minutes to recover from that missed opportunity, but were able to weather a brief resurgence by KC. About ten minutes after the penalty, CJ Sapong fouled Dane Richards in midfield, giving New York a free kick just past the halfway line. Márquez took it quickly, playing the ball inside to Henry, who passed it on to De Rosario on the right wing. The Canadian midfielder burst past a Sporting defender and sent a low ball across the penalty area for Luke Rodgers, who tapped in from near the penalty spot to give the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead. Rodgers may have been offside when De Rosario played the ball across to him, but the linesman's flag stayed down and New York was ahead.
The home side continued to threaten through the balance of the first half, as Rodgers, De Rosario, Richards, and Tim Ream all had good chances to put the Red Bulls further ahead. Kansas City were incredibly sloppy and kept getting caught in possession in their own half, but New York couldn't capitalize on their numerous defensive errors and went into the break with just a one-goal lead.
Backe made two substitutions at halftime, as Rodgers and Teemu Tainio, both of whom had picked up yellow cards in the first half, were replaced by Juan Agudelo and Carl Robinson.
That pair of changes seemed to grow in importance as the second half went on. New York seemed to lose their composure on the ball: they failed to keep possession, the defense came under increasing pressure, and there didn't seem to be any kid of attacking outlet to push Kansas City back. Henry and De Rosario, who had been excellent in the first half, were missing for long stretches after the break. While Sporting didn't manage many attempts on goal, a testament to the quality of Ream and Márquez in the center of defense, they dominated the play and probably deserved an equalizer.
Despite ceding control of midfield to KC and being under the cosh (don't you love British idioms?) for most of the second half, a few good saves from Bouna Coundoul and great work by the New York backline meant that the Red Bulls kept a clean sheet, their third in a row, and picked up three more points to reclaim top spot in the Eastern Conference. New York's next game is a much bigger test, as they face the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center on Saturday.
Selected Stats (NY-KC)
Passing Accuracy: 77%-83%
Total Passes: 430-465
Open Play Crosses: 22-23
Shots (On Goal): 10(7)-13(2)