For the first time since they put five goals past the Chicago Fire and lifted the 2013 Supporters' Shield, the New York Red Bulls won a competitive soccer match. The 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union was not pretty. RBNY fans have seen their team play better - as recently as last Saturday against DC United. But the Red Bulls lost that game.
A win is a win. Even an excruciating, dear-God-don't-blow-this-please, kind of win is three points bagged. On to the next one.
Against the Union, the Red Bulls did not cast off the frustrating tendencies of this season. The result was cathartic: we needed a win to get this season up and running, and to move beyond the memory of last year's playoff loss. The manner of the result, however, was essentially a lesser version of the way this team has been trying to win matches all year.
In that sense, this match was encouraging. The team said it wasn't panicking, and it didn't. There was no great tactical overhaul in the starting lineup. Partly, this was due to circumstance - Armando and Tim Cahill still weren't quite ready to start - so Mike Petke made a minor adjustment: Bradley Wright-Phillips started up top with Thierry Henry; Peguy Luyindula slid back into central midfield; Eric Alexander became the left midfielder; Jonny Steele hit the bench.
Credit to Mike Petke. He's been fielding a lot of questions about tactics and panic since the team lost to DC. His increasingly polished media management skills have been tested as thoroughly as the fans' patience with his team. Petke is, by instinct, a plainspoken kind of guy. He calls it like he sees it. But that is the sort of talk that generates distracting headlines, ends up on bulletin boards in your opponents' dressing rooms, gets you fined by the league, and is generally counter-productive.
So Petke is turning himself into a more tight-lipped coach than his nature might have intended for him. Still, he is the sort of coach who will appear on Seeing Red, the highest-profile independent podcast dedicated to the team, in the middle of the longest season-opening winless streak in the club's history. Most coaches do not subject themselves to unnecessary interrogation when their team is at a low ebb.
Petke did not talk freely and openly because he is not an idiot, but he was as honest and straightforward as a man in his position can be - even divulging lineup information (he told us Armando and Tim Cahill would not start against the Union). This is to be applauded.
Our coach is not the sort of tactician who gets his playing style branded and evangelized. There is no such thing (yet) as "PetkeBall".
As he revealed in a recent interview, Petke's current coaching philosophy is unfashionably simple: pick your best players, figure out how best to let them play. This is the approach Petke deployed last year, when he abandoned the 4-3-3 he wanted to use in favor of a pragmatic 4-4-2. This is why Eric Alexander, a player Petke rates very highly, spent most of last season on the right wing. And it is why Eric Alexander started against the Union on the left wing.
Alexander is not a bad player. He is, in many ways, a very good player. More pertinently, he is Petke's idea of a very good player: technically skilled, versatile and willing. Alexander will line up wherever he is told, and do his best to make it work. He did that last year, and we won a trophy. He did that last night, and we won a match.
Alexander can cross with both feet - a talent we haven't seen much since he doesn't often get asked to run around on the left. Against the Union, he attempted more crosses than Lloyd Sam (in part because Alexander has apparently taken over from Henry as set-piece-taker-in-chief). This was, unquestionably, one his better games for RBNY.
The team started with exactly the sort of urgency one would expect after the cheek-biting frustrations of RFK. Henry set the tone in the opening minutes with a wild shot into the stands from an angle that even he ought to have considered an improbable one for goal-scoring. But it appeared to reveal the team's priorities: to hell with possession, we want to score a goal.
The goal didn't come in the first half, and RBNY's newfound bustle and urgency resulted in a more even game than we're used to seeing at Red Bull Arena. Even when this team is losing, it tends to hog the ball. Not so against the Union.
This was partially down to Philly having the sort of players who know how to hold possession, and partially because the Red Bulls' were in an unusual hurry to get down the field and score. The latter point isn't reflected in the statistics: misfiring counterattacks (we're not a team built for speed) and errant flick-ons don't show up in the numbers very often.
It was also due to the presence of a man, in my opinion, too often missing from the team in its early-season struggles: Bradley Wright-Phillips. This game has been treated as Alexander's much-needed riposte to the criticism he's been getting from the fans. It was a statement game for Alexander - no question.
Judging by some of the commentary online, and from Shep Messing on MSG's coverage, the supporters are transitioning to a new scapegoat: BWP.
For this observer, that is a mistake. BWP has misfired plenty in the start to the year. Since delivering RBNY's first goal of MLS 2014, he's been missing from the score sheet. We have learned he is well compensated for this profligate goallessness, and this brings an understandable pressure from the stands.
BWP is a goal-scorer. BWP is not scoring goals. Stands to reason, BWP is underperforming.
Perhaps. But against the Union, BWP created both goals for RBNY. The first, in the 57th minute, was scored by Henry. Alexander played a one-two with Roy Miller, releasing the left back on a run into the box. Miller cut the ball back abruptly, finding Henry in space. And the captain did the rest: one touch, 1-0.
Alexander and Miller were credited with assists. Henry, of course, scored the goal. But watch the tape. Watch BWP make the run forward, carrying the center backs with him, opening up the space in the box for Miller's pass to Henry. This is simple stuff, not footballing genius: one striker runs the channel, pulling defenders with him, the other fills the gap. Sometimes the defense has it covered, sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't, and the man open is Thierry Henry: these are the sort of chances this team wants to create.
The problem recently for RBNY is the team hasn't been playing a forward who stretches the back line in this way. Henry likes to drop deep. Luyindula likes to drop deep. Cahill hasn't played much this season, but his work up front has been more as a back-to-goal sort of front-man. None of those three men is bringing a lot catch-me-if-you-can speed to the pitch these days.
BWP may not be much of a finisher at the moment, but his default-setting, the way he plays the game when the legs get tired and the mind is in auto-pilot, is a little different to that of his fellow RBNY forwards. And that is a good thing, because right now, our plan B is BWP.
It was a plan that worked out again for Lloyd Sam's goal. A long ball forward found Alexander on the left, and he looked up to see a familiar sight: very few options in the box. BWP was almost comically stranded between four Union defenders - but he kept running, and the defenders kept following. The result: space in the box, this time occupied by Lloyd Sam, who was almost concussed by a late-arriving Cahill, but still got a clean header on target and beyond Zac MacMath. 2-0.
Having a striker play like a striker is not an unusual tactic. No one need praise BWP for knowing how to play his position. No odes to Petke's tactical savvy will be written based on his ability to set up a two-man forward line. And BWP will almost certainly be back on the bench next time RBNY plays. If Cahill is fit, and no one else is injured, BWP doesn't seem to be one of the best eleven players available - and we know Petke's philosophy.
So while it is understandable that fans should grow impatient with the team's fourth-choice forward, such criticism could perhaps be tempered by some acknowledgement of his role and value to the squad. When BWP did find the net in this match, in the 61st minute, he was offside, and rightly criticized for not being more alert to the position of the defenders around him. He wasn't really being marked, all he needed do was stay onside.
But the disallowed goal - just like his back-heeled effort in the 21st minute, and his howitzer over the bar in the 30th minute - reminded the defense to pay attention to him. And both of the RBNY's goals came about because the Union's defenders were too busy minding BWP to notice anyone else (and lack of support from their midfielders, but that's assuming the entire back line needs to cover one forward).
A direct, straight-running forward who keeps defenders attention on him, peppers the goal with enough shots to be considered dangerous, and opens space for the likes of Henry, Luyindula, Cahill and the rest, is a good thing. He's not going to pad the possession stats, and his finishing is sub-par at the moment, but BWP was the major difference between the way RBNY tried to score goals in RFK and the way goals were scored in RBA against the Union.
Two second-half goals at home should be enough for this team to win. The Union had threatened throughout the match, but Luis Robles had kept his sheet clean. RBNY carried a two goal lead into the 78th minute, looking increasingly comfortable as time elapsed. Too comfortable.
Dax McCarty can be forgiven for trying to do something on the edge of the opposition penalty area, but it didn't work - his pass deflected to a Union player and started a break that ended with a slapstick sequence in front of RBNY's goal.
It wasn't the most devastating counter-attack ever launched. New York had men back. But two unfortunate things happened: Conor Casey's shot bounced off the post at an angle that stranded the diving Robles, and bounced off Jamison Olave's knee to Maurice Edu.
The defense had been a little caught out by the break, now it was completely in disarray. Robles was scrambling to his feet. Olave (who had slid in to cover the goal line) was sitting on the ground. Edu was looking at a crowded goalmouth, but he had a better chance of scoring than missing. So one can understand why Ibrahim Sekagya chose to hurl himself in front of Edu's shot - and he blocked it. Unfortunately, the block was with his hand.
It was accidental, but referees shouldn't be dwelling too much on questions of intent. This is soccer, not jurisprudence. And if Ricardo Salazar were a judge, he wouldn't be one you would want to appear before. Salazar generally behaves as though allowing both teams to line up for the kick-off without issuing a few cards is sufficient benefit of the doubt. Once the first whistle is blown, he's got one hand on his back pocket.
Sekagya blocked a goal-bound shot with his hand. Sekagya was sent off. Sebastien Le Toux netted the penalty. These things happen. A little too often to RBNY, but we'll leave that discussion for another day.
The last ten minutes were nail-biting. Ten-man RBNY against a Union team that wasn't having much trouble getting hold of the ball. The team needed a leader to rally behind for the desperate effort to protect three points. The leader, in this case, was Tim Cahill.
Cahill is often described as being the "heart" of RBNY. For 12 minutes against the Union, he was the team's brain. A brain experienced in the dark arts of time-wasting.
It's a frustrating part of the game, and one the Red Bulls aren't generally too good at - certainly not as skilled as Sporting Kansas City, or Chivas USA. This may be because RBNY doesn't often get into positions where killing time is required. The Red Bulls have spent most games since winning the Shield frantically seeking a goal, not nursing a lead.
Cahill staged an almost single-handed effort to kill the clock in the final minutes. He puzzled over free kick positions, fell over imaginary obstacles, fouled when he could foul, looked generally like a man in search of a delay. His antics were successful, so much so that Maurice Edu made a show of NOT handing Cahill the ball for a RBNY restart late in the game. Smart move: Cahill would probably have taken the ball, run off the field, and headed into downtown Newark to find a nice thank-you card for the gift.
When Thierry Henry, who may have suffered an Achilles injury in the closing minutes, was finally subbed off as Petke's contribution to the time-killing, Cahill tugged on the captain's shirt, as though willing him to slow his exit from the field.
And I, personally, cheered every sly moment of Cahill's masterclass. It's not a part of the game that should be encouraged, but it exists and RBNY falls victim to it often enough. We needed three points, and we got them.
Hopefully, the next three will come quickly - and more easily.