Three games in to the 2016 MLS regular season, there is much to debate about the New York Red Bulls - largely centered on the question of whether they are any good. The most recent game - Week 3's topsy-turvy 4-3 win over Houston Dynamo - did not settle the question of RBNY's quality or effectiveness this season, but it did at least provide the team's first goals and points of the 2016 league campaign.
Goals and points are the most basic components of any successful season, and were therefore the most urgent priority for RBNY against Houston. It didn't really matter how they got them, but the Red Bulls desperately needed to score a goal or two and win a point or three to be able to convincingly cast back-to-back losses as a slow start to the year rather than a precipitous decline from being the best team in MLS in 2015 (hush, Portland - you were the best team in November) to being something that increasingly could be accused of being league-worst in 2016.
The descent into crisis was averted by a nervous, at-times-incompetent, injury-stricken performance through which RBNY reversed (or, at least, stalled) its early-season trajectory with persistence, a bit of luck, and Felipe Martins.
It is impossible to say whether this match is the exception or the rule for the season ahead - there are still many more games to be played than have been played, and RBNY is still theoretically transitioning from the team that won the 2015 Supporters' Shield to one that apparently wants to be the 2013-14 iteration of Red Bull Salzburg (and that is not a terrible aspiration at all, as the scattering of that squad to bigger and better clubs would suggest).
What we can say, however, is that Felipe Martins had an incredible and unexpected impact on the game: two goals, both certain to feature in the highlights of this particular weekend of MLS action, that turned a 2-3 loss into a 4-3 triumph. And we can also say that this sort of goal - rare, spectacular, and important - is fast becoming the only sort of goal Felipe scores for RBNY.
He has only been a Red Bull since 2015. In that time, Martins - deployed mostly as a defensive midfielder for RBNY - has scored just five times (including the two most recent). This has not been for want of trying: last season, he was the third-most frequent shot-taker on the team - essaying 56 attempts on goal. And those attempts were mostly in vain: just 13 on target; only three found the back of the net. Generally speaking, if you want the RalfBall-era Red Bulls to waste a shot on goal, the best way to have that happen is to get the ball to Felipe.
And perhaps that explains why Felipe was not credited with a single shot on target in RBNY's first two games of the new season. In both those matches, the team was increasingly desperate for a goal - but never quite desperate enough, it would seem, for Martins to see if his shooting boots were any better in 2016 than they had been in 2015.
Sufficient desperation arrived when RBNY kicked off its third game of the new season still waiting for a first goal and a first point. That desperation ratcheted up a few notches when the Red Bulls exited the first half on the wrong side of a 2-1 scoreline. Felipe responded with his most memorable performance to date as a Red Bull. It was also one of his most insistently attacking performances: no player on the field attempted more shots (five). And, of course, no player on the field scored anything resembling those two precious, perfect goals.
They were, unquestionably, the best and most important goals Felipe has scored for RBNY. Yes, he has only scored five times, so it's not much of a sample size, but in those five goals, Felipe betrays a knack for the extraordinary. So far in his career as a Red Bull, he has never scored in a game the Red Bulls went on to lose, and each successful strike has been better than the last.
Individually, each has memorable qualities - mostly relating to the generous helping of luck one assumes must explain the appearance of such a notoriously wayward shot-taker on the scoresheet. Collectively, Felipe's goals are a crescendo: a progressively bigger, better, and bolder assertion of perhaps the most confounding talent in the current squad.
But now is not the time to debate either the merits of Felipe's current role in the team, or the team's overall effectiveness in 2016. Now is the time simply to celebrate two wondrous goals that upgraded RBNY's early-season form from "disastrous" to merely "troubling".
Thank you, Felipe - for those two goals, and the preceding three. Taken as a set, they make for quite a highlight reel. And RBNY hasn't given us a great deal to celebrate so far this season, so Once A Metro chooses to celebrate you.
The Five Extraordinary Goals of Felipe Martins' RBNY Career
1. The Fluke: vs. LA Galaxy, April 26 2015
The equalizer in a match that finished 1-1; this was - at the time - seemingly the only way Felipe was ever going to score for RBNY: by accident.
2. The Surprise: vs. NYCFC, August 9 2015
The capper in a 2-0 win over NYCFC that attracted attention mostly because Mike Grella made a fool of Frank Lampard in the build-up. But Grella's antics did not give Felipe the ball in anything like an obvious scoring position, and the NYCFC defense does the smart thing: staying tightly clustered around Bradley Wright-Phillips and inviting Felipe to shoot, because by August 2015, everyone in MLS knew Felipe couldn't shoo...oh, nicely done.
3. The Bigger Surprise: @ Portland Timbers, September 20 2015
Getting on for two months after he had last scored for RBNY, and the book on Felipe still read "give him space, and he'll blaze the ball into the crowd." Not for the first time, the defense managed Felipe on the ball in a very rational way. Not for the first time, Felipe made clear his tenure as a Red Bull will not be constrained by reason.
4. The one that was perfect: vs. Houston Dynamo, March 19 2016
Felipe gets the ball with his back to goal, turns into two defenders, takes a touch that brings a third opponent into play, and thwacks a shot into the top corner with a grace one cannot claim to expect from a man who had a 5.4% shots-to-goals conversion percentage in 2015.
5. The one that was better than all the rest of them: vs. Houston Dynamo, March 19 2016
Remember the last time Joe Willis watched RBNY line up a free kick at Red Bull Arena with the game on the line? Willis almost certainly does: it was the 2012 playoffs, he was a D.C. United back-up thrust into the fray by Bill Hamid's red card, and the Red Bulls tried something clever involving using Thierry Henry as a decoy for a rare Roy Miller set piece.
And if Felipe had skied his kick on this occasion, we would have another - albeit less critical - example of the Red Bulls' peculiar fascination with changing up their set piece routines whenever there is a game on the line and Joe Willis between the sticks for the other team.
But Felipe didn't sky his kick. And Willis finally got a sense of what the Red Bulls had hoped to make him experience back in 2012.
Thanks again, Felipe. Not sure how you'll manage to score a better or more significant goal than the last one, but we have every confidence you will try.