The win's the thing.
The New York Red Bulls beat D.C. United by a single goal, scored in the 90th minute, in a game in which everything went right for the home team except the part that actually leads to winning: putting the ball in the net.
Fabian Espindola's red card in the 32nd minute wasn't the turning point of the match - RBNY had the upper hand before it happened - but it did give Ben Olsen what he was looking for: a grudge to nurture and use to extract a dogged, determined, dammit-we're-leaving-here-with-a-point performance from his shorthanded team.
Referee Mark Geiger caught a lot heat from the players on the field, from the rage-fueled gnome in a DC United tracksuit on the sideline, and from everyone working the DCU hashtag on Twitter for his decision. In fairness to those who were enraged, it did appear to be more a case of Dax McCarty running into Espindola's boot than a kick.
In fairness to Mark Geiger, a kick to the chest is the most famous foul of the last four years. There isn't a referee of professional standard in the world who doesn't remember the 2010 World Cup final. This is what Geiger no doubt saw:
Espindola's foul wasn't to that standard, but the debate over what sort of kick to the chest is truly worthy of a red card probably sounds a little silly to referees. Don't blame Mark Geiger, MLS, Dax McCarty, or even Espindola for the sending off. Blame Nigel De Jong: he robbed the game of its innocence.
We all may pine for the days when a player could caress an opponent's nipples with a coyly raised foot and attract no greater attention from the referee than an indulgent smile - but those days are gone. We must move on.
And in the context of this game, Espindola's absence didn't have great effect. The Red Bulls were laboring in attack against 11 men, and they labored just as much against 10.
If Lloyd Sam hadn't stabbed the ball past Bill Hamid in the 48th second of the 90th minute, it might be worth pointing out a few of RBNY's many, many deficiencies in this game.
But the win's the thing.
So concerns that Bradley Wright-Phillips may be cooling off at just the wrong time need not be allowed to flourish. He had three good chances in the first half: one was blocked, one was missed, and one was tamely aimed directly at the 'keeper. He has a right to be considered among the elite finishers in MLS after his work this season, so it does not seem unfair to point out he has played in three games since he last scored from open play. But it is also irrelevant: the win's the thing.
Nor need there be any great discussion of the new formation. Mike Petke stuck with the 4-2-3-1 that hadn't been overwhelmingly successful in RBNY's last match, the 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City. It remains an excellent solution to the puzzle of getting Peguy Luyindula on the pitch. He has been too-long absent from the starting lineup, and he was more influential in this game than he had been in the last.
Luyindula still isn't quite on the same page as his teammates: he seemed to make more passes to places where his colleagues should have been than to where they were. Given time, one would expect that to change, but RBNY doesn't have a lot of time. There are now just seven games remaining to make the playoffs and find the kind of form capable of making a run for MLS Cup.
But the win's the thing. Three points eases the mad dash for points just a tad - and a tad is likely enough to buy this formation another 90 minutes (perhaps not on the road, but certainly for the next home game) to prove itself.
As such, it isn't necessary to dwell on concerns over Petke's fascination with his new tactic long after it appeared to cease to be of service to the situation at hand.
BWP was taken off at half-time, not for missing a few chances but as a precaution: the striker reportedly had a tight hamstring. His replacement was Saer Sene. It might have been a good time to switch back to the 4-4-2, playing Sene up front with Henry and allowing Eric Alexander to slide over to the left.
But Petke simply pushed the captain up front and had the new man play wide left. It wasn't great. With BWP as a lone striker, one can be assured there will usually be a man running the channels and attacking the six-yard box. With Henry, there is no such positional fidelity.
Sene, conversely, stuck faithfully to his instructions. He played the left midfield role in the attacking three, generally staying wide to offer a cross or the threat of cutting into the box on the dribble. Unfortunately, at this point in his recovery from two career-threatening injuries, he isn't particularly quick and his first touch is calamitous. When he did get a clear run or room to cross, he lacked targets in threatening positions, since Henry was as often lingering deep as trying to make a run into a scoring position.
It is hard to break down a team determined to sit back and defend in numbers. It is harder when you put your tallest attacking player on the wing and your best creative player in a target forward role he only chooses to play about half the time anyway.
Doesn't matter. RBNY won.
And Petke did break with his starting tactics eventually. By the time the goal was scored, Jamison Olave had been converted to center forward, and Tim Cahill had joined the attack. Indeed, Olave set up the goal with a delicate pass into the six-yard box that would have been added to the evidence for the "Henry effect" had it been the captain connecting with BWP.
One might question why it took so long for the all-out-attack formation to arrive. One might lament the 10 minutes wasted between Tim Cahill's arrival on the pitch in the 71st minute and his arrival in the penalty area as a forward. Cahill was brought into the game for Eric Alexander, who again performed well alongside McCarty as the other half of a defensive midfield partnership.
Was it frustrating to watch Cahill fill Alexander's role, instead of instantly boosting the attack, until the hunt for three points got really desperate? Yes. But the win's the thing.
This is a time to focus on the positive. To enjoy the return of RBNY to the Eastern Conference playoff positions: fourth place with seven games to play. This win earned the Red Bulls the right not to fret about the past but to focus on the task of staying above the red line, which means outpointing Columbus, Philadelphia, Toronto and Houston over the remainder of the season. (The team has not yet earned the right to get overexcited and start thinking about catching up with the top three in the East, even if New England is only two points ahead.)
This win means we can focus on the good things: like the fact RBNY won't have to play DC again, until or unless they make the playoffs. This is a good thing because this game confirmed a suspicion long held: Bill Hamid is not a man but a machine designed for the single purpose of preventing Red Bulls from scoring goals. How else to explain the save he made to deny Thierry Henry the presumptive match-winner? No 'keeper has consistently outwitted and outplayed RBNY this season like Hamid. It is good the team now has some time away from him.
This is also a time to admire the way the players have rallied around Mike Petke's call for commitment and discipline. Discipline was evident in the manner in which the team kept to the tactical plan laid out by the coach, almost at the cost of three points. As for commitment, no player looked lacking in effort but one stood out as the clear leader in this regard: Armando.
Shortly after Espindola was sent off, a scuffle between Roy Miller and Nick DeLeon escalated into a brawl, and the Red Bulls' underused center back was suddenly off the subs bench and on the sideline threatening to join the fray. He got a yellow card for his enthusiasm to defend his teammates, without ever entering the field of play. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Armando is an elaborate ruse to defy US immigration: he is Luke Rodgers in all but name; and height; and nationaility; and playing position. It is a very convincing disguise. But the truth is out.
And the warmth and comfort provided by three points should also allow a moment to pause and appreciate Mike Petke's continued growth as a coach, or rather an anti-coach. Petke doesn't get praised often, if at all, for his tactical acumen. In his post-match comments, it became clear why: he actively discourages it. Asked for his thoughts on the formation so nice he's used it twice, his response was not that of a man keen to promote his own contribution to the game:
"I'm sure everybody seems to have saw a certain lineup but that's not how - that wasn't our game plan, let's put it that way. We just put players in positions, starting points, and it could look like a 4-2-3-1, could look like a 4-5-1, whatever you want to say it, but at the end of the day they're starting positions and from there they have to seek the ball and find different things so I'm not sticking to a certain thing or saying or playing a certain way. I put the guys out on the field that I feel could get us a result, put them in certain starting points and then we go from there and we have two wins in a row." - dcunited.com
Whatever you say, Mike. And whatever works. The win's the thing. Keep doing what you do - we're enjoying this feeling, even if it sometimes takes 89 minutes and 48 seconds of agony to get it.