If it feels as though every win in Red Bull Arena this season isn't just enjoyable but incredible, it's because it's true. First, foremost, and frustratingly - because they have been all too few and far between - this week's 4-2 victory over Montreal Impact was the New York Red Bulls' fifth home win of the season.
Last year, the team got to five home wins by game #18; in 2012, we saw win #5 in game #16; in 2011, it arrived in match #19; in 2010, it was reach in game #12. Twenty-four games is a long time to wait for a fifth home win, even if the team has only played 11 of those matches in Harrison.
Beyond their infrequency, each RBNY home win this year has had something unusually special about it. The first win - 2-1 over Philadelphia Union - was remarkable because it was the first win of the regular season (home or away) and was a long time coming: seven matches is the longest RBNY fans have had to wait for their team to start winning in MLS since the Arena opened (2006 was the last time it took so long for the first win of the year to come along).
The second home win brought BWP's first hat-trick in a 4-0 thumping of Houston. The third was Henry's 2014 highlight to date: a goal and three assists in the 4-1 trouncing of Columbus. The fourth was that epic comeback from a goal and a man down against the Revs. And now we finally have a fifth to celebrate, and it was another story to tell about Henry's greatness and the remarkable (and now record-breaking) scoring ability of Bradley Wright-Phillips.
On paper, this match against Montreal should have been a routine three-points-at-home for RBNY. The Red Bulls weren't just hosting the worst team in MLS in 2014, they were playing a club that had just sent its best available players to El Salvador for a CONCACAF Champions League game three days earlier. And only three of the guys (Patrice Bernier and Marco Di Vaio - the oldest members of IMFC's squad - and Karl Ouimette, who had been deputizing for Hassoun Camara) who started the match against CD FAS on Wednesday did not start again in Harrison on Saturday.
The Montreal team that showed up to play RBNY was both terrible and tired. The New York Red Bulls have not been great, but they were at least rested (they hadn't played since August 10th), not particularly troubled by injury or suspension, playing at home, and possessed of the league's top scorer and leading assist-maker. Cake-walk? Not for RBNY in 2014.
Half-time of this game might just have been the most frustrating interval of the season to date at the Arena. It was the third time this year RBNY has lost the first half at home, so perhaps we ought to be used to it by now. But at least when it happened against Chivas USA, there was the luxury of it still being early in the season - so it didn't feel like this was a recurring nightmare. And when it happened against New England, the Revs had been the better team.
Against Montreal, RBNY was the better team. Not merely better than Montreal, better than RBNY had been in recent memory. Tactically, this team has struggled all season to get Tim Cahill and Dax McCarty firing together in midfield. The two players seem almost to get along too well, leading to a double-pivot arrangement that sees each obligingly filling in for the other. It makes them solid teammates, but RBNY is better when Cahill is attacking the penalty area and Dax is covering the back four - and when they play together, they seem to do what they do best about half as often as when paired with other players.
Not so against Montreal. Petke lined up Eric Alexander on the left side of the 4-4-2, bumping Ambroise Oyongo to the bench now that Roy Miller is available and not having to fill in at center back for Jamison Olave. But Alexander played narrow, stepping into the middle to cover for Tim Cahill - who was effectively a forward for most of his time on the pitch.
It was a sight to behold. RBNY was fluid, focused, tactically dynamic, difficult to predict or control. Of course, the opponent was a fatigued version of MLS's worst, so it is important not to get carried away, but if this is a new tactic - or simply the players figuring out the tactic they were supposed to be playing for most of the year - it is very promising.
With Cahill adding an extra target in the box, Roy Miller bounding down the left, Lloyd Sam and Chris Duvall running the right, and Thierry Henry floating around in his usual all-action role, the Montreal defense had a great deal to try to manage.
L'Impact struggled to cope. In the 7th minute, Sam broke free down the right, crossed low and hard into the six yard box, and RBNY should have profited. Montreal 'keeper Evan Bush got a hand to the ball as it passed him, but only succeeded in flicking it into Bradley Wright-Phillips. Surprised by both the velocity and change in trajectory of the ball, BWP completely mistimed his shot - managing to guide the ball away from an open goal - but Cahill was lurking and pounced for the tap-in. Matteo Ferrari got a block in to prevent RBNY taking the lead.
The chances kept coming. No sooner had Montreal cleared the first major danger to its goal, RBNY won a corner: BWP had a header saved on the line. In the 25th minute, IMFC got a reminder of the dangers of forgetting about Thierry Henry, as the captain curled a shot wide from the top of the box.
Soccer is all about risk and reward. In this particular tactic, RBNY reward is multiple attacking options. Its primary risk is that the formation is imbalanced: Alexander is often tucking in to cover for Cahill; Miller is often pushing forward to be the de facto left midfielder. The team is vulnerable at the back at the best of times. It is particularly vulnerable when, as happened in the 37th minute, the defense is caught cheating over to cover the left side of the field.
In fairness, Callum Mallace played an outstanding, quick pass to switch play to the vacant right flank, and Dilly Duka made an extremely intelligent run - bringing the ball back toward the center of the pitch, effectively holding the RBNY defensive line to his right. The run kept Duka one-on-one with Chris Duvall, who did a very good job of keeping Duka from shooting with his right foot. Unfortunately, that was exactly what Duka was selling. With the defense covering the right side of goal, Duka cut back onto his left foot and threaded a quite excellent finish between Luis Robles and the near post. 1-0 to L'Impact.
And, despite all the promise of RBNY's newfound attacking versatility, that scoreline held all the way to half-time.
What happened in the second half was another page in Thierry Henry's already-overstuffed scrapbook of momentous Metro moments. He scored the equalizer - with his head from an Alexander cross in the 53rd minute. He scored the go-ahead goal - sneaking a shot to the far post through a small gap between Hassoun Camara and Matteo Ferrari in the 67th minute. He set up BWP for the third goal - courtesy of smart pass that lead Wright-Phillips away from his marker and allowed him a clear shot at the net.
And he was striving to the end. Henry appeared to be in discomfort by the time he left the field. No, it wasn't the reason for his long, slow trudge from sideline to sideline when he exited the game in the 83rd minute: that was an experienced player milking the clock because his team was defending a one-goal lead (Montreal got a second goal in the 79th minute, off a very good strike from the edge of the area by Andres Romero).
But whatever knock Henry suffered did remove him from the field (to a standing ovation from the crowd), despite the fact that he hadn't allowed his injury to prevent him from chasing down a Montreal attack and up-ending an opponent with a sliding tackle to curb an attack that was threatening to enter the final third. The tackle was his last act of the game, and it was perhaps more representative of his will to win than either of his goals or his assist. Scoring and creating goals is Henry doing his job; sprinting after opposing players and tackling them before they reach the back line is not really part of the captain's job description. But he does it because not conceding goals is as important as scoring them, and RBNY clearly needs more help with the former than the latter.
The final goal occurred without Henry even being on the field: Peguy Luyindula simply straight-lined a pass along the ground into the box, and BWP followed the line of the ball until it was close enough to goal for him to take a shot. It was a remarkably efficient piece of running from MLS's most remarkably efficient striker this season.
It felt as though BWP had a bad night: he missed some VERY good chances. But he walked away with two goals and the RBNY all-time single-season scoring record for goals in MLS. And, his scoring chance percentage(perhaps the simplest measure of a striker's efficiency) improved after this game: it was 26.5 % before kick-off; 27% by the end of the game.
His first strike took him level with Juan Pablo Angel's single-season MLS scoring record for RBNY (19 goals, set in 2007); his second made BWP the first player in the variegated history of this club to score 20 goals in a MLS regular season. And it was perhaps fitting that he did so without Henry on the field, since it the notion BWP is little more than a vehicle for Henry's creativity appears to be hardening into fact (despite the best efforts of some...).
At least Wright-Phillips got to enjoy this particular moment without literally being in the shadow of his captain. The figurative shadow will doubtless linger for the rest of time.
And that's OK. Titi was the man of this match; BWP provided a moment of history for the fans to celebrate. (And if you missed out, don't fret: run, don't walk, for tickets to the next match. BWP is just one goal behind tying the club's all-time, all-competitions single season record: 21 goals, set by Adolfo Valencia in 2000.)
There really is no disgrace in praising Thierry Henry, even if it is a little disconcerting to see one man's talent used to undermine the achievements of his colleague.
The mood in the Red Bulls' locker room is clearly to drive BWP onwards and upwards. Post-match comments from the team noted Wright-Phillips' consistent ability to miss more than he puts in, and suggested he should not be satisfied with simply breaking a club record. The all-time MLS single-season scoring record is 27 goals (set by Roy Lassiter in 1996; equalled by Chris Wondolowski in 2012) - and his team-mates seem to think BWP will reach it.
Perhaps he will. It is a major challenge to sustain a near goal-a-game average over more than 30 matches (BWP has 20 goals in 23 appearances, so he needs a still-stellar seven in 10 games just to tie the record), but this match provided fresh reason to believe he might do it: this match revealed RBNY has more than one effective tactical set-up.
If you recall the recent win over New England: RBNY won that game by reorganizing to a narrower formation, which was described as a sort of diamond midfield.
This game saw the return of the formation, with Cahill playing the point of the diamond, even effectively often playing as a forward when Henry went roaming. This set-up brought RBNY's first goal: Henry got into the box and onto the end of Alexander' s cross while the defense was preoccupied with BWP and Cahill.
The same tactic - and the same Henry-Cahill swap - brought RBNY's second goal. Again, Cahill pushed forward alongside BWP; Henry was playing deeper, at the point of the diamond. When the captain dribbled into the box, the defense was trying to keep tabs on BWP and Cahill in the middle, and Ambroise Oyongo (who had just subbed on in place of Eric Alexander) who was holding position on Henry's left. The result: Titi with the ball at his feet and options, one of which was to shoot quickly for the far post.
As Oyongo's presence on the pitch for the second goal attests, however, RBNY can offer a second look: the flat 4-4-2 so frequently deployed for most of this year. In this match, for the first time in a long time, it appeared Mike Petke was working to a tactical plan which, for once, he was allowed to deploy without interruption by inconvenient defensive meltdowns.
Ambroise Oyongo and Peguy Luyindula were conspicuously warming up in the early stages of the second half. The 60-minute mark is a traditional time for tactical changes, and Oyongo entered the game at exactly that time. Out came Eric Alexander. It seems a waste to have a player of Oyongo's creative and technical ability playing the limited role of midfield clean-up man that Alexander was filling for most of the game. Sure enough, he stayed wider than Alexander - playing more as a left winger.
This change puts pressure on the central midfield: if you have Cahill still pushing up, then Dax McCarty is pretty much alone in the middle. Luyindula came in for Cahill in the 67th minute, and played a more traditional central midfield role than the Australian had been.
The final change - Saer Sene for Thierry Henry - appears not to have been premeditated, but was interesting because it came at a time when RBNY was still protecting a one-goal lead. Petke might have opted for a shift to a more defensive formation, since he had two defenders on the bench, but he chose to keep the tactic alive by sending on a forward to replace Henry.
These tactics are, of course, fluid: the most critical element of each is facilitating the versatile talents of Henry and Cahill. But RBNY's first two goals came from a set-up that was regularly keeping two men up front, with an occasional third depending on what Henry or Cahill were doing; the second two goals arrived from what has become the more traditional arrangement - BWP foraging alone up top, with sporadic assistance from the attacking players behind him.
Either system can work and has worked. Neither really addresses the team's defensive problems, so either system can also fail. And this game was, fundamentally, no more than a home win over the worst team in MLS.
But it is encouraging. RBNY is in a dogfight for the final Eastern Conference playoff places. The team still has the league's leading scorer (BWP) and assist-maker (though Henry is now oint-top with Robbie Keane). And it now appears to have a little more tactical flexibility than it did even a short while ago.
If RBNY makes the post-season and performs well, there will be great and deserved praise for the team's star player, star scorer and whoever else steps up on the field. But spare a thought for Mike Petke. His last big tactical transition brought this club a Supporters' Shield. He's too late to repeat that trick this season, but he's trying something, and he deserves credit if it comes off.