They did not lose.
The New York Red Bulls eased out of their three-consecutive-losses spiral of doom with a surprising 1-1 draw in Kansas City.
Not surprising you say? Yes, Sporting Kansas City was operating off just one more day of rest than the two-day turnaround granted RBNY. Yes, KC has so few fit defenders that there is a very real possibility head coach Peter Vermes may be forced to unretire and suit up for a game or two if anyone else pulls up lame. Yes, KC's form is scarcely any better than RBNY's at the moment: the team had lost two of its last three, and had as many wins in that stretch as the Red Bulls (i.e. none).
So sure, throw two tired, out-of-sorts teams at each other and a low-scoring draw would seem the most likely result. But if you were still thinking that after the first ten minutes of this game, you are an optimist of the highest order.
KC came out blazing - a smart approach when your defense is held together with rubber bands and prayer. The home team pressed and harried and did everything it could to keep the ball with its front six, and in the final third. It's uncharitable to suggest RBNY let KC do this - we ought to be confident the team does not want to be made to look inept on national television - rather, the Red Bulls simply couldn't keep up.
They couldn't get hold of the ball, and KC only gave it back for goalkicks and throw-ins. In the 2nd minute, Chris Duvall (posting his second consecutive start as RBNY's right back) cleared off the line, after Igor Juliao was invited to simply run the ball into goal. In the 4th minute, Jamison Olave hoiked a goal-bound header away from the net. Minutes later, Benny Feilhaber curled a freekick onto the crossbar.
Fortunately, the Red Bulls are fast learners. If the other team will only let you have the ball for restarts, what you need to do is fashion a restart. In the 9th minute, RBNY graciously backed off Toni, one of KC's impressive stable of goalshy forwards, and allowed him to lash a shot past Luis Robles. Job done: the ball was returned to the visitors for the restart.
The Red Bulls weren't a great deal improved after going a goal behind, but the logic of the first ten minutes was this game would be a thrashing. Dreadful as RBNY has been in its last two home losses, the team has long been one to reserve its absolute worst for the road. This was to be one of those games: a low point to crown the depths already plumbed this season.
Except it wasn't. The Red Bulls somehow clung on to their dignity in a lackluster first half. KC had more chances, but aside from literally knocking the ball out of Robles's hands, didn't find the net again.
And RBNY came out firing in the second half. As dominant as KC had been in the opening stages of the first half, so were the Red Bulls immediately after half time. In the 50th minute, Thierry Henry simply shook off a challenge, strode across the halfway, sucked most of the KC defense toward him, and played a very straightforward through ball down the middle for Bradley Wright-Phillips to collect and knock past Eric Kronberg.
BWP might have been fractionally offside, but this team has dropped a lot of points to debatable calls this season (Hi Colorado! And we shoulda had that second goal last week.) so it need not apologize for getting the benefit of the doubt this time around.
The goal put BWP back in sole possession of the lead in the league's Golden Boot race. He's got 11 to his name now, and is the first Englishman to reach that mark in a MLS regular season. Henry's assist (incidentally, this was his 100th MLS regular season start for the club) was his 35th in all competitions for RBNY, and puts him one step closer to reaching the team's all-time assist record (39 - shared by Amado Guevara and Tab Ramos).
Gratifying as it was to see RBNY haul itself back into the game, the transformation was merely from awful to adequate. Shortly after scoring, BWP had a good, if unexpected (Aurelien Collin made a mess of an interception) chance to grab a second; but KC had chances as well - Dom Dwyer missed the target with a free header; Robles saved a shot from Toni that was arguably better struck than the one he produced for his goal.
It was, finally, the expected match: two tired, understaffed teams going toe to toe without much to show for it.
Still, for RBNY, the ability to turn a game around (as opposed to having it turned around on them) has been lacking for much of this season. And this would count as a good result, were the team not fresh out of three terrible performances.
Encouragement can be taken from the second-half appearance of Peguy Luyindula. He didn't trouble the scoresheet, though not for lack of effort, and he once again demonstrated his importance to the team. It's not just his ability to make a pass, it's his strength on the ball and the simple fact that his presence on the field makes Henry an option rather than the option.
RBNY's goal came from Henry playing deep and making the sort of run and pass one might expect of a central midfielder. It is good that Henry can do that, because the team doesn't get much of it from anyone else - except Luyindula. (Though credit to Alexander who offered a sort of poor-man's reenactment of Henry's assist in what almost turned into BWP's second.)
The message of Petke's starting lineup is he remains convinced Alexander is the most effective central midfielder in the squad when Luyindula (or Tim Cahill) isn't around. The coach sees the players in training, and he's right to back his judgement: it got us a trophy last year.
But, to a more casual eye, the continued faith in Alexander in the middle is puzzling. For this match, Petke had to reach into the reserves - Cahill and Jonny Steele were on international duty; Luyindula wasn't fit to start - and he picked Ruben Bover for the start.
Last season, it was suggested Bover was being converted into a central midfielder, with some success.This season, Alxander's best work for the team has been on the left side of midfield. So it was little puzzling to see the team lineup with Bover on the left and Alexander in the middle. Again, the first Red Bulls coach to win anything worth talking about, in his first season as a coach of any team worth talking about, gets the benefit of the doubt. But there is doubt.
Why go to the trouble of making the bold decision to switch these guys away from their presumptive best positions (Bover arrived in New York billed as a winger; Alexander was considered primarily a central midfielder when he turned up to play Petkeball) if you're not going to stick with it when you really need it?
Again, Petke gets the benefit of the doubt. And he should get credit for sticking with Chris Duvall at right back for this match (though it would have been odd had he done otherwise) and the surprising decision to bench Armando. Ibrahim Sekagya got the start, putting in a good shift until he comically substituted himself with an overzealous display of timewasting that apparently duped even his own manager.
It was silly. But those who remember Jimmy Nielsen baiting Juninho into a red card with his clock-killing antics will surely have enjoyed the sight of Sekagya enraging Vermes by turning one of his favored tactics against him in his own stadium.
Nonetheless, though Duvall and Sekagya played well enough, the defense is still the biggest problem for RBNY. The goal was allowed for much the same reason Maxi Urruti scored his first last week: too much time and space to take a shot from just outside the area. At some point, the defense will realize 20 yards out is a scoring position, but the message isn't quite getting through at the moment.
There was a worrying moment late in the game when a backpass to Robles was almost intercepted. These should be simple, well-rehearsed exchanges between defender and goalkeeper, but RBNY has injected an unnecessary level of uncertainty into the backpass this season, and disaster was only narrowly averted in this match.
Such issues speak to communication problems throughout the back five. While Luyindula's return is encouraging, and a draw on the road against the reigning MLS Cup champs - however weakened - is not to be taken for granted, this team cannot continue to rely on goal-line clearances and the occasional stellar save from Robles for its points.
Because that approach won't yield a great deal, as RBNY's current run of one point from a possible 12 indicates.