Goals from Alex Muyl and Daniel Royer and a strong defensive display handed the New York Red Bulls a 2-0 win over Columbus Crew: the team's second consecutive 2-0 win, and its fourth consecutive clean sheet at Red Bull Arena.
The Crew had chances, and the shutout owed as much to luck as the performance of an increasingly confident and capable back line. But rare is the game in which the opponent has zero chances to score, and at some point one perhaps ought to accept that a team is making its own luck - four shutouts in the last four home games seems a reasonable point at which to stop quibbling about the occasional breakaway opportunity or dangerous cross. The RBNY defense deserves praise, as surely as it will attract criticism the next time it is breached.
The team is more or less re-committed to playing the 4-2-3-1 again: this was the third game in a row in which last year's (and that of the year before, and the late-season turnaround of 2014 under Mike Petke) preferred formation was favored over the 4-2-2-2 - the formation Red Bulls have now failed to transition to in back-to-back seasons. The 4-2-2-2 doubtless isn't gone forever, but it's mostly gone for now. And - as happened last year - the decision to revert to the 4-2-3-1 has seen the team revert to its better self: more potent in attack, less often panicked at the back.
Times are good in Red Bull land: the team has posted back-to-back wins; the home crowd hasn't seen an opponent score a goal at the Arena since Vancouver visited for CCL in February; and RBNY is back among the leading teams in the Eastern Conference.
The win was abetted by Columbus' misfortune. Crew midfielder Artur had to leave the field almost as soon as the match kicked off due to injury. Five minutes after he had left the game, Alex Muyl opened the scoring for RBNY, in the 11th minute.
Next, Alex Crognale felled Bradley Wright-Phillips in the box, and injured himself in the process.
Daniel Royer converted the penalty, and the Red Bulls were two goals up after 38 minutes. And the Crew had already burned two subs. Columbus never quite recovered from the events of the first 40 minutes, and RBNY closed out another win for its fans to savor.
Three thoughts on the latest win at RBA;
1. Alex Muyl is not a blue-collar player
Hot on the heels of his first goal of the season - against D.C. United on April 15 - Muyl found his second.
And on another night, he might have had a hat-trick.
Muyl said last week that he was "never a blue-collar player", and he has been saying he wanted to play with more freedom (translation: more attacking verve) this year since RBNY Media Day in February. But it took him a while to find that freedom. For his first three appearances of the season, Muyl registered zero shots. In his last two, he's fired in seven, put five on target, and scored twice.
Both he and his head coach have said he is making a concerted effort to be more of a threat to score this season, and the the fruit of that labor is surely reflected in his increased presence in his team's most visible attacking stats - not just goals: he has out-shot Bradley Wright-Phillips in both of RBNY's last two games.
2. Daniel Royer takes the penalties now
This game settled a question that has been unanswered since Sacha Kljestan missed a spot-kickagainst Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League semifinals back on February 22: who is RBNY's penalty-taker?
Kljestan miss was merely his latest in a string of flubbed PKs dating back to the latter part of last season. He had himself taken over penalty-taking duties when BWP hit a dry spell from the spot.
Now it would seem it is Royer's turn to shoulder the responsibility of converting penalties, at least until his luck starts to run out.
His first effort for RBNY didn't immediately inspire confidence in his long-term suitability for the role: his shot followed a very save-able trajectory, and Columbus 'keeper Zack Steffen duly got both hands to it. Steffen was beaten by the power of the shot, but unstoppable power doesn't seem like the most sustainable method for making spot-kicks count.
Still, it was Royer's first effort for RBNY - and it went in, which is really all that matters. He'll take the next one surely, and if wrist-breaking shots are his preference, so be it.
3. Derrick Etienne makes us happy
Etienne got 24 minutes off the bench in relief of Alex Muyl, and very nearly stole the show.
First, he played in BWP for what was almost a third goal for RBNY.
Next, he almost got the third goal for his team himself.
We're still waiting to celebrate Etienne's first MLS goal or even assist. Only a matter of time, it would seem.