The New York Red Bulls are back on top of the Eastern Conference after winning a topsy-turvy game by the odd goal in five. The 3-2 win was as entertaining as it was nerve-wracking, the result in doubt to almost the very end. If this is to be the pattern of RBNY's final push for success this season, the team's fans will need some strong sedatives for the playoffs.
Three thoughts on the latest, perhaps greatest, moment in the unbeaten streak (14 games in MLS; 18 in all competitions) that is driving the Red Bulls to the post-season:
1. Controlled chaos
In a 2013 interview with Frankfurter Allgmeigne, Helmut Gross - Ralf Rangnick's mentor and adviser - provided what remains one of the most revealing descriptions of the philosophy that has come to define Red Bull Global Soccer:
I myself consider it a "nice" when a risky pass is played, lost the ball, but repositioning three players in the swarm, win the ball back and then it arises goal. This looks sometimes chaotic, but it usually is controlled chaos, often with very high creativity.
This match was controlled chaos. It was, in some ways, peak RalfBall: a frantic, high-tempo, back-and-forth affair decided by a very slender margin. It could have finished 3-2 to the Union, or 3-3, or 5-4 to either side, or 5-5.
Union 'keeper Andre Blake kept his side ahead in the first half for much longer than they deserved.
Bradley Wright-Phillips missed two second-half chances to kill the game. Luis Robles stopped Philly from getting the last word.
Both teams will look back at opportunities missed, both will wonder how the final score wasn't higher or lower or simply different.
It was chaos, but it was controlled chaos. RBNY tried a little bit of everything to subdue the Union. Swarm the box to overload the back line and create space for a shot on goal? Check.
Punch the ball over the top and rely on the singular talent of a goal scoring phenomenon? Check.
A little set-piece double-bluff, using the center backs as dummy runners to draw markers away from Dax McCarty? Check.
"Beautiful is what is successful," says Helmut Gross. This match was scrappy, disjointed, frenetic, often reckless, never dull, and a win for RBNY. It was chaos. It was successful. It was beautiful.
2. Dax McCarty had a helluva game
The captain led the way on both sides of the ball, clattering and battering around the midfield, making some big challenges count when Philly needed quieting, and still finding time to contribute to all three of his team's goals.
Twice, three points seemed to have slipped away from the Red Bulls; three times, the captain helped his side get back on track. The third time being the charm.
A game-winning goal was a fitting trophy for the man of the match (with apologies to Andre Blake, whose goalkeeping was the primary reason Philly was able to stay competitive throughout). And a man-of-the-match performance was fitting for the 185th start in all competitions of McCarty's career as a Red Bull.
He has already broken a couple of RBNY's MLS regular season career appearance records, but this game was one in which he claimed a share of one of the club's all-time, all-competitions appearance records. His 185 starts matches Mike Petke's all-time high for RBNY. And if he stays fit and the Red Bulls stay on track for a credible run in the post-season, McCarty will finish this season as the club's all-time, all-competitions appearances record holder in all major categories.
This match was a reminder that the most of those appearances have been in the service of success. As documented by MetroFanatic.com, the Red Bulls have slowly turned around their history since moving to Red Bull Arena. They are, currently, holding an all-time winning record for the first time since 1996 (when they were called the MetroStars and had been in existence for a matter of months). That turnaround has happened over the course of the club's RBA years - and no one has played more minutes at Red Bull Arena than Dax McCarty.
It has become fashionable to critique Jesse Marsch's use of substitutes. And the RBNY head coach's use of his bench in this game continued his season-long pattern of confounding expectations.
It was a closely contested game that required a lot of running: of course Marsch only used one sub for the entire match.
Gonzalo Veron's continuing and conspicuous absence from the MLS starting lineup seems to confirm the suspicion that club's vaunted DP signing is on the outs: of course he was the only player trusted to help RBNY close out a game from which three points were desperately needed.
And, of course, it worked. Perhaps the method to the apparent madness was seen in the dying minutes of the game, when the Red Bulls settled on letting Veron's fresh legs carry the ball forward for others to then slow the tempo in the final third and kill the clock. Perhaps with mostly tired legs, the team is encouraged to focus more on outsmarting opponents in the last minutes rather than the usual frantic effort to outrun them.
If this is RBNY's latest plan for protecting a lead - minimize the use of substitutes to maximize the result - then so be it. Beautiful is what is successful.