The New York Red Bulls finished off a three-match home stand in the manner they had hoped: a 2-1 win over Chicago Fire makes it nine points from three consecutive games at home for RBNY. It was important to make this stretch of matches at Red Bull Arena count, because points won at home tend to be the difference between success and failure in the MLS regular season, and because the Red Bulls had lost two on the road prior to returning to Harrison - and next they face another mini-run of road games.
Also, this was the game in which RBNY had to face the consequences of its biggest off-season decision (let’s say, absent evidence to the contrary, that Ali Curtis’ departure from the club was more his decision than RBNY’s): trading Dax McCarty to Chicago Fire.
The circumstances of that trade brought the Red Bulls no small amount of criticism, but this was the first meaningful test of its substance. Implicit in every trade is the notion it makes the teams involved stronger. McCarty is one of several off-season acquisitions who appear to have made Chicago a lot better than it was last year. RBNY has out-performed the Fire for several seasons now, and this game was the first opportunity to see how McCarty affected the balance of power between the two Eastern Conference teams.
The first half was an uncomfortably open and even affair for fans of the home team. But the Red Bulls survived a few scares and found the opening goal in the 37th minute. Bradley Wright-Phillips bagged his fourth of the MLS season from a nice pass by Daniel Royer. But player truly responsible for the opportunity was on the other team.
Juninho should be credited with an “own-assist”, since his effort to intercept a pass to Sacha Kljestan resulted in a deflection that effectively made the same defense-splitting play the Red Bulls play-maker would doubtless have hoped to make.
The goal sent RBNY to half-time with the lead, and the chance to regroup to close out the game. But Chicago never lost its foothold in the match. In the 59th minute, the Fire found an equalizer - and it was Dax McCarty who set it up.
A foul in the build-up ought to have been called for RBNY, but McCarty still had a lot to do when the ball squirted out to him after David Accam clumsily felled Felipe. McCarty is admired more for his diligence and persistence than his elegance on the ball, but he nimbly evaded three RBNY defenders before pushing a pass into space for Nemanja Nikolic to fire at goal.
It was the first goal the Red Bulls have conceded at Red Bull Arena in MLS this season.
At 1-1 with about 30 minutes to play, the match was going to be a fight to the finish. Perhaps spurred on by the sting of seeing a hard-won shutout streak ended, it was the Red Bulls defense that nudged their side ahead.
In the 71st minute, a Damien Perrinelle pass found its way to Kemar Lawrence in the Fire’s penalty area, and the left back sent his shot low and true to the far post.
The score-sheet will reflect a routine, regular-season 2-1 home win, but the atmosphere in the stadium was that of the playoffs. McCarty’s return, the presence of Bastian Schweinsteiger on the field for Chicago, and the back-and-forth nature of the game: there was a special energy in the stands and on the field.
“It was a number of factors,” said Jesse Marsch after the match, “Obviously, Dax coming back brings a lot of energy to the game. And, you know, they [The Fire] have done well this year and they want to establish themselves as a better team.
“So a big part of that includes being good on the road, which in their recent history, it’s been difficult for them. So they came here and they knew that we’ve been good at home and they have spoken highly of us, which we appreciate, but we that we were going to get a really good effort from them.”
After the match, Dax McCarty signed autographs and shared well wishes with his former home crowd. After honoring the fans who wished to honor him, he settled in for a later-than-usual post-game chat with the reporters he used to see every week:
“It’s definitely strange but I saw a lot of great faces that I wanted to see, but the objective was to come back here and get the three points, disappointed we didn’t because I thought we played well enough to do that,” he said.
“We created plenty of chances and that’s something you don’t do often as the Red Bulls haven’t conceded any goals at home this year. It was a frustrating night as I thought we could’ve had more, but I am upset that we couldn’t get the three points.”
McCarty and the Red Bulls now part ways until September, when they will meet again in Chicago. But now it is time for RBNY to look to the next game: on Wednesday, May 3, against Sporting Kansas City; and the game after that, on Saturday, May 6, against Philadelphia Union. It will be a challenging week: there will be little time to reflect and recover between games, and the squad’s depth and resolve will be tested thoroughly.