If this is Thierry Henry's last go-round with the New York Red Bulls, he's certainly making it a memorable one.
Hot on the heels of the team's first home playoff win since it changed its name and moved house, we got RBNY's second-ever playoff win at Red Bull Arena. Like the first, it was a win over a traditionally difficult opponent. Like the first, it followed a detectable pattern: back and forth in the early exchanges, squandered chances one feared the Red Bulls would regret, and an opening goal for Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Fortunately for the schedules of the tri-state area's beleaguered cardiologists, RBNY didn't make its fans wait until it was down a goal and well into the second half to get itself going this time. It was merely the 40th minute of the game when Henry, playing deeper and more centrally than one would expect of someone nominally playing the left wing position in a 4-2-3-1, picked up the ball on the halfway line.
He laid the ball off to Lloyd Sam, and found himself running into the space vacated by a retreating back line, preoccupied with covering runs by Luyindula and Eric Alexander, as well as watching Richard Eckersley on the overlap at the right flank.
With both arms outstretched at the top of the box, Henry was hard to miss: Sam sent in his pass, and the captain drew three defenders to him. A dainty back-heel sent the ball toward Luyindula, hovering by the penalty spot. And he dummied to let BWP power the opening goal into an empty net.
Henry's role in the sequence is hard to miss: his back-heel shifted the ball away from virtually the entire DC defense. But it was a well worked goal for the team overall. Eckersley's overlapping run forced the back line to drift over to the right, anticipating Sam would work the ball wide. Alexander's appearance in an advanced position pulled the center backs apart, creating the space Henry was able to exploit. Luyindula worked the other defender, playing the lone forward role usually occupied by BWP.
And BWP, lest we forget his contribution, was the man who laid the ball off for Henry to start the sequence, and adjusted to fill the wide left position the captain was longer playing.
Henry's back-heel comes to absolutely nothing if Luyindula doesn't know BWP is behind him, making sure to keep Chris Korb - the only defender capable of interfering with the pass - out of reach of the ball. Nor does the goal get scored if BWP isn't tracking the play and working the left channel his captain had abandoned.
Similar tactical fluidity was on display for RBNY's second goal, in the 73rd minute. Henry was once again deep. He appeared to get progressively less mobile as the game progressed - hardly surprising given that he'd played a full game against Kansas City just three days earlier. But the captain doesn't need to be running to be a threat.
He passed first to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was just in front of the center circle. DC's line was high, and RBNY had few players forward. BWP returned the ball to Henry and broke left, once again offering to take the wing if the captain was minded to play central.
But the captain was in no mind to move at all. He looked up. Dax McCarty made a very important run, breaking forward drawing the attention of the defense and then looping back onside when it was clear he wasn't a target for a pass.
That run pulled the defenders out of the central channel, and was Luyindula's cue to take off in a straight line for goal. With Perry Kitchen's back turned, Peguy got three or four steps on his marker - and those were the three or four steps of space he had when Henry's perfectly-weighted pass landed on his foot.
Luyindula still had a lot to do: Bill Hamid has been stopping RBNY's shots all season. But the man who couldn't buy a goal when he first arrived in New York calmly passed the ball through the 'keepers' legs.
It was an unexpectedly confident finish from a player whose only goal of the 2013 season was a penalty, handed to him by his captain at the end of a game the Red Bulls were winning easily, as a pick-me-up after a frustrating run of increasingly incredible misses.
The blessing and the curse of being a professional athlete is you're only as good as your last performance. Luyindula's past form in front of goal is, of course, irrelevant. Partially, because he's no longer lining up as a forward for this team; partially, because it is the shots he's taking now that count, not whatever he did last year, or even last week.
Speaking of last week, few things illustrate the short memory of sports fans and the people who make their living covering sports for fans than the suggestion that Mike Petke's inclusion of Luyindula as the central attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 was a "surprise".
Tim Cahill started against Sporting Kansas City in RBNY's opening playoff game, and didn't leave the field until the last minute of stoppage time. But Luyindula's arrival in the 65th minute turned that game for the Red Bulls: he contributed to both goals in the Red Bulls' 2-1 win, just as he contributed to both goals in this match.
If he looks comfortable in his role, it is because he's been playing it for some time. Back in August, Mike Petke started tinkering with the 4-4-2 that won the Shield last year but wasn't getting it done in 2014. First, out of necessity, he shuffled the lineup for the second half of a game against New England that the Red Bulls appeared destined to lose. They didn't, and there were some tweaks to the formation after that, culminating in the full-fledged debut of the current 4-2-3-1 on September 6, against Sporting Kansas City.
The Red Bulls have won eight of the 11 games they have played since switching the formation, including the last two playoff games - and Luyindula has started seven of those matches. He hasn't always played well, which is why he dropped out of the starting lineup for last game of the regular season and the first of the playoffs. But he is a regular starter for this team, and this is because he can play the way he has done over the last couple of games.
What some observers appear to be struggling with is RBNY's newfound squad depth. As he marshaled the team through a series of high-pressure games to end the regular season, Mike Petke was making changes to the lineup more out of need than choice: injuries, suspensions, and international call-ups made it appear there was never quite the same pool of players to choose from each week.
As a result, Petke suddenly has a deeper squad than some may imagine. If, as was happening, Luyindula is getting bullied off the ball and out of the game repeatedly (DC tried the same tactic in this game, and were finding it successful for most of the first half), Petke can reach for Tim Cahill - who currently finds himself in the curious situation of being second choice to play arguably his best position.
Indeed, were the coach to drop Luyindula for Cahill it could be for entirely tactical reasons (wanting a stronger presence in the air, for example), and not a reflection on either player's relative ability or value to the team. This is called depth, and it is the surprise late arrival to the season - not Peguy Luyindula's role as a playmaker.
That strength in depth is most obvious up front, where Petke is essentially picking his preferred four from a pool of six players: Cahill, Henry, Luyindula, BWP, Sam and Ambroise Oyongo.
There are options at the back as well. But Petke appears to have settled on Richard Eckersley, Jamison Olave, Ibrahim Sekagya and Roy Miller as his first-choice defense: they have started RBNY's last three games. And this match, which included the not-at-all-easy task of keeping Fabian Espindola quiet, was perhaps their best showing as a unit.
In the preceding run-outs against Sporting Kansas City, the suspicion was RBNY got a bit of an easy ride due to KC's much-mentioned fatigue. This game was against a rested DC squad, which has its own injury issues (Sean Franklin, Luis Silva and Chris Rolfe are key players not yet at full fitness), but that had also had plenty of time to prepare for the match.
Between them, the back four did very well to cover for each other, limiting DC to just two shots on target. There were alarming moments, as one ought to expect against a polished opponent and from a defense that has been shaky all season - but the defense held. It can be assumed Petke will give the same unit another run in the second leg of this series.
If the Red Bulls are to make a serious impact on these playoffs, their dismal road form needs to improve significantly. There is no longer any margin for error: a capitulation on the scale of the disaster in LA will see the season end at RFK stadium.
The team has shown itself capable of beating the best in MLS this season - when the best come visiting Red Bull Arena. Now it must summon something approaching that form for a road trip.
It is not being outrageously pessimistic to note RBNY has scored zero goals on two trips to RFK this season. Indeed, the Red Bulls would be heading to DC with a near-insurmountable lead in the series were it not for Bill Hamid's umpteenth demonstration of his goalkeeping talents. He has turned games against RBNY into his own personal highlight reels this year, and may yet do so again.
RBNY's defense will need to be at its best.
The optimists, however, will note that all three of the Red Bulls road wins in the regular season were against teams that made the playoffs: FC Dallas, New England Revolution, and Sporting Kansas City. And all three of those wins were built on clean sheets.
Three shutouts is a lot for a team that only managed six over the entire regular season. RBNY has spent the year trying to compensate for its defensive shortcomings, largely by throwing the ball to BWP whenever possible. The next game would be a good time for the back line to start repaying the many, many favors and lifelines it has been handed by the free-scoring forwards.