The New York Red Bulls got the win that was expected over a spiraling New England Revolution, but perhaps not quite in the manner expected. But it's the points that matter most, and RBNY got three of those out of this game - so all's well that ends well.
1. Turning the tables
The first half of this game had a depressingly familiar feel to it: RBNY had a lot of the ball, but couldn't quite turn ample possession into a goal. And the best chance of the first 45 minutes was arguably the penalty New England didn't get when Chris Duvall got too close to Kei Kamara in the 18-yard box and the Revs forward hit the deck after feeling contact at his back.
We've seen this game before, and earlier this season it too often finished with RBNY baffled by another loss to a goal conceded on the counter-attack.
It's not that the Red Bulls played badly, just that they played predictably. We've seen this before and it generally doesn't end well for RBNY.
And then the script flipped. The Red Bulls came out for the second half mostly to watch New England pass the ball around and get forward. If they wanted the ball, they couldn't get it. The Revs were suddenly transformed from dominated to dominant. Somehow, RBNY managed to make the first half seem preferable to what we were seeing at the start of the second.
But maybe there was a method to the madness. About 10 minutes into what suddenly seemed to be the Revolution's show, RBNY surged forward on the counter. Sacha Kljestan missed the pass that was supposed to unlock Alex Muyl - but the young winger simply barged his way onto the ball...and clanged a shot off the 'keeper. Bradley Wright-Phillips first-timed the rebound into the net.
Muyl with some good strength gets the shot off. The rebound falls to BWP who scores his 16th of the season. 1-0! pic.twitter.com/dJX08oKjFF— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 28, 2016
Maybe this is RBNY's new solution to its recurring possession problem. It isn't really a team built for patient passing around a well-drilled defense. Nor does it really have the speed in its preferred starting attack to be a reliable counter-attacking team. But it can still catch teams on the break, and cause havoc in the box with a little well-executed chaos. Who cares if the pass was missed and the shot was saved? What matters is the ball found the net and the home team found three points.
RBNY isn't set up to be pretty. It is set up to be effective. Get forward, get a shot off: repeat until the final whistle. When it gets taken out of that game plan, forced into slow-tempo passing around the edge of the area, the team starts to look ponderous. Whether it was a deliberate choice by Jesse Marsch or simply the good fortune of the Revs abandoning their sit-back-and-counter plan for a few minutes: the Red Bulls figured out how to break the bunker - let the other guys have the ball for a while. They turned the tables, and it worked.
2. Jesse Marsch used all his subs today
You might think that a team leading 1-0 at home on a hot day would make good use of its substitutes. You might think a team with three starting-caliber attacking players on its bench would use them to press the advantage as its opponents' legs started to tire. And you would be correct.
But Jesse Marsch made us wait to see the sight of RBNY's newly acquired alternate front-three. By the end of the game, the Red Bulls had Daniel Royer, Omer Damari, and Gonzalo Veron up top. By the very end of the game.
Damari came on in the 64th minute. Royer finally arrived in the 83rd. Veron might not have made it on the field at all, but there were six minutes of injury time to kill, so he got a 90th-minute entry to the game.
It took a while, but at least Marsch was persuaded to make full use of his bench - and his attacking depth.
3. Three points is all that matters
It wasn't a pretty game. It was a little too close for the comfort of RBNY fans. But there are not many games left to play in the regular season. RBNY's primary objective is just to keep picking up points and pushing for as high a position in the Eastern Conference as it can get.
The match was won. Three points were added to the team's tally in the standings. RBNY moves on to the next one. If we know one thing about these 2016 Red Bulls, it is that they are far from perfect. But the time to get perfect has passed. This is the time of the season to get results. And 1-0 wins as many points as 7-0. On to the next one.