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Week 21 (part II): New York Red Bulls 2-1 New England Revolution

Was it the best win of 2014?

Introducing Daxinho
Introducing Daxinho
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Give this one to Mike Petke.

The New York Red Bulls sixth win of a frustrating stop-start season was 45 minutes of everything awful we've come to expect from this team in 2014, and 45 minutes of (more or less) wonderful things to confound many of the tropes that have attached themselves to this campaign.


For example: Dax McCarty is off his game? Certainly looked as true as it ever has ever been in the first half, when he was clanging the ball around, executing good decisions badly and too often making the wrong choice entirely. But he wasn't alone in that regard.

It was a first half to forget, because to dwell on it is to risk PTSD. The 2014 Red Bulls cannot start playing it would seem until Luis Robles has felt the sting of a shot in his hands, but his scrambling double-save in the 9th minute failed to jolt the team out of its apparent conviction it could beat the Revs at half-speed.

I cannot remember a worse performance of a first half that I've ever seen.   -Mike Petke (empireofsoccer.com)

New England Revolution chased and chivvied RBNY around the field, and generally seemed to have the better ideas about what to do with the ball in the final third. One such idea: cross low and hard into the six yard box and see what happens. Teal Bunbury gave that plan a go in the 20th minute and was rewarded with a deflection off Ibrahim Sekagya which carried the ball over McCarty and Matt Miazga and on to Charlie Davies's head. 1-0 to the visitors.

Bad was followed by worse. Possibly the only person on the pitch having a worse game in the first half than the guys wearing white shirts was the one in yellow.

Referee Allen Chapman let a lot of hard contact go without comment, which is often a recipe for an increasingly violent game. Perhaps this - and the nagging possibility he had missed something early in the game when he yellow-carded Davies for diving (the New England forward looked like he had merely tripped) - led to his decision to red-card Matt Miazga for getting in the way.

It was first half stoppage time, Lee Nguyen was chasing a ball out of his own half, and Miazga stepped up to offer an unusually high press. The young center back is already a big man, but he checked his lunge when he realized he wasn't going to reach the ball. Unfortunately, down on one knee, Miazga wasn't in any position to move when Nguyen's momentum carried him into the defender's leg.

Chapman clearly didn't appreciate the nuanced difference between a bad tackle and an unfortunate collision: Miazga was sent off. RBNY's miserable night would be concluded with one less player than is generally regarded as optimal.

The first half is on me, I'm the coach. The second half is on them. That's how it goes. They earned it and it's because of them we won this game.   -Mike Petke (bigapplesoccer.com)

You couldn't make McCarty the scapegoat for the Red Bulls' problems in the first half. It was a team effort. Just as the epic second half effort came from a collective will to do better. But Dax provided the first sign that the night didn't have to be as bad as the opening 45 minutes suggested.

In the 47th minute, Dax channeled all the sexuality that has been missing from his game to chip in from 20 yards.

And he tried it again in the 70th: dancing with the ball on the edge of the area, pretzeling MLS's 2013 Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves, before dinking another shot on goal - albeit a little too delicately this time. For the second half, until he was substituted in the 87th minute, we saw Daxinho: the sexy, alabaster prince of Harrison; Dax's Brazilian alter ego.

So much for Dax being off his game.


There were other familiar analyses of RBNY's 2014 that were challenged by this match. Bradley Wright-Phillips only scores goals because he's super-quick and Henry puts the ball in places where anyone could knock it in? Nope.

BWP spent most of the night locked down by a capable Revolution back line that had the measure of whatever pace he has - indeed, Kevin Alston and Goncalves looked considerably quicker than the Red Bulls' forward. He managed one shot on target all night, and he made it all by himself.

It was the 63rd minute, the Red Bulls had just cleared their lines, and BWP had the job of holding up play in the center circle while his teammates advanced. He laid off to Lloyd Sam, who dribbled into a cul-de-sac of New England defenders and lobbed the ball into the space behind them.

BWP ran onto it, but not at sufficient speed to be free of the defense - A.J. Soares was providing close attention. One touch was enough to wrong-foot Soares, and BWP's second touch was a deftly curled strike that clipped the far post on its way to the back of the net. Henry did help out with the goal celebration.

When we fight together, we're unbeatable.   -Tim Cahill (bigapplesoccer.com)

Another popular line that gets trotted out about this team: RBNY is nothing without its DPs? And of those DPs, Henry is the brain and Tim Cahill is the heart.

Try again.

Cahill had to be subbed off at half time - an extremely inconvenient time for him to leave the game since RBNY was a goal and a man down, and looking entirely without ideas for retrieving the situation.

But the Red Bulls pulled off the greatest comeback of their season to date, and maybe the greatest comeback since they moved to Harrison, without Cahill on the field.

But the conventional wisdom which took the biggest hit on the night is also the criticism that has rung most true to date: Mike Petke doesn't know have the tactical nous to adjust formations or personnel to turn the tide of a match.

There is a great deal of evidence in support of that claim - but not on this night.

The word from the locker room is it was Robin Fraser who suggested the loose 3-4-2 with something resembling a diamond midfield that RBNY turned to for the second half and which inspired the fightback from a goal down to a goal up (and it could have been two or three - had Henry been quicker to reach a rebound in the box, or Peguy Luyindula's shot been just a fraction closer to the target).

Fraser is a good coach in his own right, and could well be the tactical leader in RBNY's management team - in which case he also bears a considerable amount of the blame for what has transpired in this season to date. But Petke is the man in charge, and the guy who has to decide which advice to take and which to reject. If it was Fraser's idea, it was Petke's decision to go with it, and the success of the switch speaks to the effectiveness of the coaching team.

Fraser will be greatly missed if he moves on next year, and RBNY will be fortunate to find another assistant with his ability. But at least we know Petke knows good advice when he hears it.

If we show up and play like we did in the second half for the rest of the year, I like our odds to  go very far.   -Mike Petke (bigapplesoccer.com)

This was also a match in which can't-sub-won't-sub Petke used every one of his substitutes, and persisted with some of his more infuriating tactical preferences. First on was Eric Alexander, since Cahill was injured and someone had to take his place.

Petke could have turned to Luyindula, a better passer and controller of possession. He might have thrown on Armando, forming a solid back three with Ibrahim Sekagya and Roy Miller and allowing Chris Duvall and Ambroise Oyongo to function more freely as wing backs. He could even have called on Bobby Convey. OK...maybe not.

But Petke had options, and his first choice was the man you suspect it was very hard for the coach to leave on the bench in the first place. Alexander is a sort of security blanket for Petke: when times are hard, he throws the utility man on and takes comfort from his presence.

And it worked. Daxinho's goal was all down to the ginger magician himself, but Alexander gave him the ball, and therefore got credited with the assist. Alexander's touch and decision-making may let him down too often at crucial moments, but his work rate is consistently high, and he gave Petke 45 minutes of ceaseless running when it was needed.

The manager let us know about ourselves in the 15 minutes at halftime and then we came out and showed what we can do. -Bradley Wright-Phillips (bigapplesoccer.com)

The second substitution, Peguy Luyindula for BWP was surprising for a number of reasons. Firstly, though BWP had looked slow against the Revs' defenders all night, and wasn't getting any quicker as the game progressed, he is faster than Peguy, and speed helps to create space - vital when defending a narrow lead with only 10 men.

But BWP wasn't putting in the work by the time he came off, so a change was justified. What was more surprising was there was no great change to the formation. Lloyd Sam continued to play a narrow, almost central, midfield role, and Peguy's knack for holding the ball and connecting passes was slotted into BWP's spot up top.

Finally, Kosuke Kimura came on for Dax McCarty. This substitution said more about who Petke wasn't prepared to bring on than either Kimura or Daxinho. McCarty was tired, and there was a one goal lead to defend. Maybe now was the time to bring on another center back? Nope. Armando stayed put.

With less than 10 minutes to defend the most important one goal lead of the season to date, Petke turned to a guy he's played with and coached to a Supporters' Shield: Kimura.

The result was a final phase of the game played out with roughly half the team out of position. And it worked.

The tactics worked (thanks, Robin); the substitutions worked; the players worked themselves ragged; the team came back from a dreadful first half. And Petke deserves the credit.

That's the type of desire we need to have all the time. -Thierry Henry (mlssoccer.com)

We've seen his decisions fail several times this year. We've seen him seemingly powerless to change a game from the sideline. And this time, we saw him succeed. This was Mike Petke's win, built on his trust of his players and colleagues.

The season is neither saved nor doomed by this win. RBNY moves back to the top of a list of six generally poor teams competing for two playoff spots in the East. There is still a great deal of work to do.

But this win proved this team can work. It took a combination of individual brilliance (Obrigado, Daxinho), luck (the refereeing was poor, but consistently so - allowing the players to at least play to a stable interpretation of the rules), and effort.

As a coach, Petke still seems to value effort over tactics and formations. Tonight, for the first time in a while, he met his team halfway: offering a little tactical support to his call for more work. The result was three points.

If he can get his team to play this way for 90 minutes with 11 men, instead of 45 with 10, the season could start picking up very quickly.

For now, however, it is simply a wonderful result in a year pockmarked by dreadful performances.

The next 12 games will tell us how much of this special effort is here to stay.