How does a team which hasn't won a game on the road since October beat one of the hottest sides in the league on its home ground?
First, play the hot team after it just suffered its first blowout loss of the year. Next, face the aforementioned club when it has not one but two first-choice players suspended for red cards incurred during that blowout loss. Also, get the added bonus of having your supposedly in-form opponent lose its definitely in-form play-making spark to injury. And then enjoy the sight of yet another of this hot team's starters lose his cool in the opening minutes of the game against you and get himself sent off.
This was a match no one would have expected the New York Red Bulls to win two weeks ago. FC Dallas was looking like one of the best teams in the league back then. Sure, FCD lost to Seattle, but many good teams will lose to Seattle this season.
Then FCD got thrashed 4-1 by D.C. United. And Zach Lloyd and Michel were sent off during the match. And Mauro Diaz was injured. And just 10 minutes into this game in Frisco, Je-Vaughn Watson launched himself at Tim Cahill's family pack - and FCD, already missing three guys from the preferred starting lineup, was down to 10 men.
By the eleventh minute of this match, a game RBNY might have been expected to lose had turned into a can't-miss opportunity for three points. Except the Red Bulls very nearly did miss.
It might have been the heat - it was over 90 degrees in Frisco when the game kicked off. It might have been the pitch, which was not great. It might have been a bit of tiredness: RBNY is one of just two teams (the other is Philly) to have played 10 games in the first nine weeks of MLS. Perhaps it was a combination of all of those things.
Whatever the reason, even after going up a man, the Red Bulls were disjointed and ineffective, and dangerously vulnerable to the counter attack. Jair Benitez appeared able to streak past RBNY players at will. In the 26th minute, Fabian Castillo got round most of Dax McCarty, but tripped and was unlucky to be carded for diving. He ought to have won a penalty.
Tim Cahill was back in the lineup for RBNY, slotting into central midfield at the expense of Peguy Luyindula. Cahill very nearly opened the scoring with a sly free-kick in the 25th minute: a low, scuttling shot that looked to have beaten Raul Fernandez but drifted wide of the post.
But Cahill's primary contribution to the match was two collisions. The first was unfortunate: Watson panicked at the sight of Dax McCarty, hurled himself into the air, and clumsily flailed a leg into Cahill's groin. It didn't look intentional, but that doesn't matter: there aren't many good reasons for a flying kick to the nethers during a game of soccer, and there aren't any reasons why it shouldn't bring a red card from the referee. Advantage Red Bulls.
Cahill evened things up in the 58th minute. Danny Garcia was running free in the space vacated by Kosuke Kimura, who had been hurled to the ground by Castillo. Cahill chased Garcia down, caught up with him in the box, and simply plowed into the FCD rookie's back. Garcia is young, but he's playing the game long enough to know what to do when an overexcited Australian runs into him in the penalty area: the rookie hit the deck, and won one of the more straightforward penalties of RBNY's recent glut (this was the sixth conceded this season).
It was the turning point of the game, though not as one might have expected. Dallas had generally looked a little livelier and likely to score, despite being a man down. Blas Perez stepped up to take the penalty, spanked his shot at goal, and Luis Robles finally got the bit of luck every 'keeper needs to make a save: he guessed correctly, timed his dive correctly, got hands to the ball and kept it out of the net.
It was a good save, and Robles had to make one or two more before the match was over.
Mike Petke, meanwhile, had seen enough. Cahill was in bull-in-china-shop mode, careering around the pitch, amply demonstrating his fitness but entirely out of sync with his teammates, who appeared scarcely interested in moving at all. Petke yanked Cahill and brought on Luyindula: it was time for less guts and more guile.
The switch worked. In the 71st minute, Luyindula - who had only been on the pitch for about 10 minutes - helped create the only goal of the game by being exactly the opposite of Cahill: instead of charging after the ball or into space, he simply didn't move.
By basically standing still, Luyindula kept his marker with him, which opened up a channel through which Dax McCarty launched a pass. It bounced perfectly for Thierry Henry, who got behind the defense and through on goal.
Still, there was work to be done: Henry had a clear chance to shoot, but also had two defenders closing in and a well-positioned 'keeper. In his 100th MLS regular season appearance, here was Titi's chance to deliver another high class finish - but he didn't,
The captain has quickly built a very solid partnership with Bradley Wright-Phillips. Henry cut the ball back behind the chasing defenders, and BWP pushed his shot back across goal to the very spot Fernandez had been covering when he was expecting Henry to shoot.
It was a clever pass from Henry, and it bodes well for BWP: he has his captain's confidence.
One goal was all it took for RBNY to take three points. This was convenient, because the team did not look particularly interested in playing after the goal was scored.
But it is not necessary to be critical of this performance. It was hot. The pitch was shabby. RBNY was on the road, where it isn't often at its best. FCD is a better team, even without its best players, than recent results suggest. And the Red Bulls were having a bad day. Tim Cahill's return to the lineup was more disruptive than constructive - it would appear the team needs to learn how to work with him again.
Even good teams have bad days. We don't yet really know how good RBNY will prove to be this year. But we do know that to be good, you also need a little bit of luck. This match was that little bit of luck: a bad day for RBNY but a terrible day for FCD. When you aren't playing well, you hope your opponent plays worse.
Right now, RBNY needs points. It got them. There is still a lot to work out on the training ground: there will be a few more hot days on the road before the season is over, and the team can't stop running every time the sun comes out.
But any day RBNY wins is a good day overall. This team can play pretty - as it did against Houston - but it's nice to know it can also win ugly.