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Columbus 1-2 Red Bulls: late Nealis winner puts team back in playoff spot

Struber’s boys becoming men after earning yet another crucial three points to reclaim season

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Alexandria Skowronski-USA TODAY Sports

After a stuttering summer that attracted doubters, the New York Red Bulls have thoroughly corrected the record on their 2021 season.

Gerhard Struber’s men won their fourth straight game and extended their unbeaten streak to eight after a 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew in Ohio on Saturday night. Yet another early Cristian Cásseres goal was cancelled out by a Miguel Berry finish for Columbus before the half. Patryk Klimala missed a potential game-winning penalty attempt before assisting Sean Nealis for the second goal minutes later to send the Red Bulls back into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Gerhard Struber again inched closer and closer to a first choice starting eleven after the team’s injury crisis subsided last month. Patryk Klimala partnered with Fabio up top as Sean Davis and Dru Yearwood’s midfield partnership and a 3-center back defensive line continued in Struber’s team sheet. Yet again, the team came out with the energy to get the early goal that Struber has said is so crucial to the team’s tactics.

For the second week in a row it was Cristian Cásseres nicking an early set piece score. Tom Edwards, lining up as the right-sided center back and providing dangerous ball deliveries all night, put in a searing corner that the Venezuelan international met completely unmarked on the doorstep to cushion past Columbus keeper Eloy Room in the seventh minute for a 1-0 Red Bulls lead.

Though a New York team becoming more and more confident in possession continued to attack in waves following the goal, they were unable to get the second goal to break the game open before Columbus clawed back. Miguel Berry found himself on the end of a Steven Moreira cross to finish first time past a helpless Carlos Coronel in the 19th minute to equalize. Columbus would control much of the remainder of the half (Gerhard Struber would comment post-match on the danger of their switches and fullback positioning luring the Red Bulls into bad pressing moments) and force a characteristically heroic save from Coronel in the stoppage time before the break.

Struber would tweak the formation slightly, bringing on Wikelman Carmona to occupy a left-sided attacking role with Cásseres covering the wide spaces on the other end. The second half was a thrilling back and forth affair between two teams desperate to get back in the postseason picture with several inflection points, most notable a missed penalty.

Wiki Carmona drew the whistle from referee Alan Kelly after being chopped down by Columbus right back Moreira on a lunge into the box. Patryk Klimala walked up to the spot, and despite growing confidence in recent weeks, the Polish youth international pulled his shot wide left of Room’s goal to leave the draw intact. Nervy moments for New York came shortly after when a misplayed Carlos Coronel clearance forced the goalkeeper to make a slide tackle near the midfield line.

But in a moment of fortune that can identify a team of destiny, the Red Bulls got their late winner to catapult them back into the playoff spots. After retaining the ball in the 88th minute following a possession-induced corner kick, New York cycled the ball around to Cásseres, whose cross was headed by Klimala back across goal into the path of center back Sean Nealis, who had remained in the box and reaped the rewards with a calm finish to secure the most important three points of New York’s season.

Nealis would remark after the game that he didn’t have a celebration planned, something of a microcosm for this once-discarded Red Bulls season that now feels on the brink of major success.

“This win is extremely deserved,” remarked Gerhard Struber post-match, with the Austrian in a bright mood as his team rounds into form and vindicates his big-picture approach.

“We expected a tough game and then after us being in control the first 10-15 minutes, we lose some of our distances to press when Columbus has good ideas with their flat fullbacks.”

“But my boys showed a belief and a big will to win even after the missed penalty. Compared to 2-3 months ago with have a different mindset in difficult moments. When we get hit in the face, we can handle that, and my boys showed that today.”

“Everybody is switched on, everybody is buying in” said Sean Nealis post-game. “This is a young team where everyone had to step up in their own way this year and we’re only getting better from here.”

Cristian Cásseres remarked upon the team’s growing confidence in all phases of the game and that the team is excited to close the season “in the best form possible,” a sentiment shared by his manager.

“Obviously the results help with confidence,” said Gerhard Struber before taking a triumphant swig of his preferred yellow-flavored Red Bull can.

“We now have four big, big games. We must be careful with our bodies and regenerate and continue this confidence in our style of play.”