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Week 26: New York Red Bulls 2-1 Sporting Kansas City

It was an important win for RBNY, achieved with a new formation, but this game will largely be remembered for THAT goal by the captain...

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

There was no shot.

Shortly after half-time of RBNY's back-and-forth, late-season home game against Sporting Kansas City, the Red Bulls started a break down the left: Thierry Henry flicked the ball out to Roy Miller, who pitched his pass to Peguy Luyindula, in space with three defenders back-tracking ahead of him. A look up told Luyindula his only forward option was Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was moving with the back line but well marked; Peguy switched play over to Lloyd Sam on the right.

Sam dribbled into the box, into Seth Sinovic, one of MLS's more capable defenders. The KC left back skilfully guided Sam away from goal, back over to the middle of the pitch. The back line steadied itself: the visitors had six men back, ready to swarm the ball carrier, covering the passing lanes. Stymied, Sam switch play back to the left, to the top of the box - to Thierry Henry.

The captain received the ball with nine men in front of him: five KC defenders and four of his teammates. He looked into cutting round the outside, but Sporting's defensive unit is well practiced: one man stepped forward to press and chivvy Henry back inside. Crowd the space, clog the channels, kill the threat.

Moving to his right brought Henry dangerously close to Lawrence Olum, who dutifully stepped in to force a decision. There weren't many options. The captain was outside the box, caught in a tight triangle of defenders, looking at a slim-to-none chance of threading a pass between the blue shirts.

He was a true captain tonight -Mike Petke on Thierry Henry (gothamist.com)

Except he wasn't thinking pass. He wasn't thinking about Olum closing in on his right or which of his teammates might still be onside as the defense stepped up to pressure. You watch the tape, you see Henry step toward the middle of the field and pull his right leg back for one reason: to shoot.

But the shot wasn't on. Not from there. Not with all those bodies between him and the goal. Not with three men advancing to close him down. KC had Henry exactly where they wanted him: contained.

And then Henry had the ball exactly where he wanted it: in the net.

It was one for Henry's Harrison highlight reel, which is fitting because it was the captain's 50th for RBNY.

It was also the goal which won this game for the Red Bulls. The home team claimed three urgently-needed points in an Eastern Conference playoff race that looks set to be crowded and frantic until the end of the season.

RBNY started this weekend outside the East's top five, and finished in the same position, since Columbus and New England also won, and Philadelphia took advantage of Toronto's momentary lapse of reason to beat the Reds twice this week.

All the Red Bulls can do for the moment is accumulate points and hope to eventually outpace at least one of three teams above them in the standings. They do have a game in hand on the Revs, Crew and Union, and that will be played this Wednesday, at the Arena, against D.C. United.

I hope that we didn't leave it too late to be able to make the playoffs. We're on a good path, but let's not get too overexcited -Thierry Henry (gothamist.com)

It will be the second match in a brutal September schedule that features the top two teams in the Eastern Conference (at the moment, at least), Philly (now on a TFC-boosted three-game winning streak), Seattle (current Supporters' Shield race leaders), and LA (the most likely to catch the Sounders, should they stumble).

This game provided a sense of how RBNY is going to try to get to the beginning of October with some hope of making the post-season remaining.

Early in the week, the staff sat down and said 'who are our best four attacking players?' And we pinpointed those best four and we put them in positions we thought that they could hurt -Mike Petke (empireofsoccer.com)

A simple glance at the score sheet provides the no-surprises core strategy: goals from BWP and Henry. Indeed, those seeking to make whatever success this team enjoys all about its captain will point out BWP's goal was once again provided by Titi. Sort of.

The Red Bulls were struggling through their customary difficult start when Luis Robles aimed a goal kick at Henry. It looked like Toni Dovale got to the ball first, but either way, the result was everything the captain would have hoped for: a flick-on that skimmed through the back line for BWP to chase.

What possessed Matt Besler to foul the RBNY striker not once but twice on his way toward goal only he can explain. What possessed Hilario Grajeda to refrain from handing out neither a red card (Besler was the last man back and BWP is the league's top scorer, playing at home - what more obvious scoring opportunity could be denied in MLS?) nor a yellow only he can explain.

But BWP was at least rewarded with a penalty, which he converted for a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute, and his 21st goal of the season. Wright-Phillips is now tied with Adolfo Valencia for the Red Bulls' all-time, all-competitions single-season scoring record.

Bradley doesn't want to talk about the record or a record and that's a credit to him -Mike Petke (bigapplesoccer.com)

RBNY doesn't have the luxury of playing for personal milestones at the moment. And this game reflected a critical ingredient the Red Bulls will need to complement their standard of tactic of letting their best player give the ball to their best finisher if they are to finish the regular season in a playoff position: an all-hands-on-deck, whatever-it-takes, team-first, win-first mentality.

On this occasion, the standard bearer for the team's in-to-win-it mindset was Jamison Olave.

The big man's best moment came late in the first half. Ibrahim Sekagya went down with a bum ankle incurred during an attempt to stifle a KC attack before it reached the final third. The cross that followed was punched away by Luis Robles, who caught a piece of Olave's head in the process. Chris Duvall volleyed away Dom Dwyer's goal bound shot, but with Sekagya languishing near the halfway line and Olave lying down in the penalty area, New York was immediately back in trouble once Peguy Luyindula failed to control an attempted interception.

With Olave keeping him onside, Benny Feilhaber simply stood in the penalty area while what was left of RBNY's defense pushed up, accepted a through ball, and turned to shoot...into Jamison Olave's leg.

Olave returned to nursing his sore head as the ball skipped out of play.

We talked about commitment and discipline before the game. Those two words and I think both of them were evident out there -Mike Petke (gothamist.com)

It was a moment of characteristic disarray in the Red Bulls' back line - albeit precipitated by the misfortune of having both center backs floored by hard knocks - salvaged by one man's determination not to allow his own discomfort blossom into another dispiriting half-time at the Arena for his team. To concede an equalizer at that moment, just before the end of the first half, could have turned the game against RBNY - not least because the team wasn't really in control of the match anyway.

KC finished the game with a greater share of possession (55.5%) and 17 shots attempted (RBNY managed five). In part, this was because the referee let the game play out to the visitor's advantage, taking an indulgent view of the squabbling, shoving, shirt-tugging harassment that forms a significant part of Peter Vermes's consistently effective game plans.

With a little luck here or there, we could easily have been equal or even ahead -Peter Vermes (sportingkc.com)

In part, however, it was also symptomatic of the simple fact that KC - even when two goals down - was never out of the running in this match. Indeed, it was the home team, troubled by their opponents' relentless pressure on the ball, who played like they were on the road: counter-attacking whenever possible and forced into playing the ball long just to get a moment to ready for the next assault from their guests.

Once Dom Dwyer notched his 18th goal of the year (tying his club's single-season scoring record) and KC's first of the evening, a mere two minutes after Henry's 52nd minute classic, the rest of the match was a pretty tense affair. Dwyer scored because he was allowed to loiter unmarked in the six-yard box on a set piece. Any team capable of not defending its opponents top scorer is capable of shipping a few goals.

We held up, but on another day we could have lost that same game -Lloyd Sam (gothamist.com)

Henry's goal aside, this wasn't a pretty win, but that is not important. RBNY's task is to find a way to win - if it is an ugly way, so be it.

Led by Olave's example, the rest of the team pitched in to help stave off KC. Chris Duvall deserves particular praise for keeping Graham Zusi and Seth Sinovic from dominating their side of the field. But it was a team effort, backstopped - as always - by Luis Robles. And abetted by the continuing evolution of Mike Petke as a head coach.

We're still learning about Petke's management style and skills, largely because he is still learning himself. His reputation as a coach is essentially a reheated version of his reputation as a player: limited skill, limitless passion.

This is simplistic. He probably wasn't even his own first choice for the job of running this team in 2013, but he stepped up for the club as it teetered on the edge of a shambolic start to the post-Viking era. And his first decisive tactical decision was to scrap the plan he'd shaped during preseason - a 4-3-3 that appeared well suited to combining the talents of Henry, Tim Cahill, Fabian Espindola and Juninho - after one game. RBNY drew 3-3 in Portland, dropping a two goal lead along the way, and Petke turned to a flat 4-4-2 that ultimately cost him Juninho's confidence and services. And he won the Supporters' Shield.

This season, we have suffered the frustration of watching a coach whose only experience of the job to date taught him to back his instincts (that 4-4-2 wasn't great either to begin with, but it worked out in the end and delivered the only major trophy this club has ever had) slowly concede that his instincts may not always be right.

Much needed win. Happy, happy with the result. -Mike Petke (bigapplesoccer.com)

Against KC, we saw the debut of a new formation: a 4-2-3-1, that left BWP to forage up top as a lone forward, supported by an attacking line of three (Henry on the left, Luyindula in the middle, Lloyd Sam on the right), with Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander combining to shield the defense and hold down the midfield.

The result notwithstanding, the formation wasn't an unqualified success. By the end of the game, with his team clinging to a one-goal lead, Petke had reverted to the 4-4-2.

A few teething problems are too be expected with a new look, and Petke took a tremendous risk in rolling the dice on a different lineup for such an important game. This could merely have been an isolated attempt to bolster the defense and cater to the absence of Cahill and Ambroise Oyongo. The 4-2-3-1 looks like an interesting way to get Cahill back close to goal (he could slot into Luyindula's position in the middle of the line of three), but it pretty much rules out Oyongo as a starter (since he would presumably have to be picked ahead of either Roy Miller at left back or Henry at left wing).

So we may not see this formation for any great length of time, since it could have been nothing more than a one-off effort to get the best out of a shorthanded squad - unless it works.

Dax and Eric's whole role tonight was to sit home and be the link offensively from one side to the other -Mike Petke (gothamist.com)

The defining feature of Petke's nascent coaching career is loyalty: to tactics that work, to players that work, to the core of a roster that brought home a trophy the first time he asked it to. The downside of loyalty is inflexibility. Petke has certainly appeared slow to even attempt to change his approach to a game if events suggest the original plan isn't working. His faith in some of his players to do any job he dreams up for them (Hi, Eric! Great work this week!) borders on infatuation.

But he has rolled with the punches in his brief tenure at RBNY. He survived Juninho's snit and a spat with Henry last year en route to a triumph. We have no idea what the future holds this season: the Red Bulls could play very well and still not get the chance to disgrace themselves in the playoffs as recent tradition dictates.

Yet Petke has accepted many of the off-season moves were busts, ushered in young players - like Duvall and Oyongo - while still keeping the flame of hope for the playoffs alive. He's embraced BWP as the team's primary scoring threat, forcing last season's top scorer (Cahill) into a less attacking role in midfield. And now he's breaking out brand new tactics at a time of year when most teams are hitting their stride.

The Red Bulls have not found their stride all season.

This is a team that has not been consistently good or consistently bad this year. Its longest run of results to date is an early-season streak of four draws. It is has scored 41 goals - eighth-best in MLS 2014 - and conceded 39 - eighth-worst in the league. It is 11th in the Supporters' Shield table. This is a stubbornly average year.

To make the playoffs, RBNY may need to win five of its remaining eight games. Its next four matches are against some of the best teams in the league at the moment. Average is not going to be good enough.

At least you know when you battle, luck goes your way and I guess that's what happened tonight -Thierry Henry(gothamist.com)

We don't know whether Petke will stick with the 4-2-3-1 for the next game. We definitely don't know whether whatever tactics are deployed will work. But we do know - based on the evidence of this latest win - the coach and players are on the same page: they'll do whatever they can to get the results they need.

Effort won't always be enough. Henry won't always be enough. Defenders won't always hack down BWP in the box. And refereeing errors won't always have the good grace to have little impact on the outcome of the game.

This team can make the playoffs, however. And if it gets that far, it can make an impact on the post-season (hush, history - we talk about you plenty). But it's going to have to fight for the former to win the right to prove the latter.