In the dying minutes of the New York Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew on Wednesday night, Kyle Duncan received a firm slap on the rear from manager Gerhard Struber after energetically crunching Pedro Santos to win a loose ball. Struber and his players alike were visibly thrilled to remove the proverbial monkey from their reverse and earn three points for the first time in a month. John Tolkin scored in the first half and Carlos Coronel repeatedly stuffed the defending champs in Harrison to earn man of the match honors.
Coming on the heels of continued makeshift squads, the match began with Struber rolling out yet another new lineup, this time a 3-5-2 again featuring John Tolkin in a midfield role. Perhaps more important however was that for the first time in over a month, Struber had a full set of healthy center backs available, with the now-healthy Andres Reyes replacing the suspended Tom Edwards in the back.
The game opened with drama as Patryk Klimala appeared to draw a penalty before referee Chris Penso retracted the call following VAR review. Save for a couple hiccups, the remainder of the first half was thoroughly in New York’s favor and, in an increasingly rare occurrence, the Red Bulls actually got the breakthrough.
Following a neat bit of possession begun by Tolkin making an intelligent switch to Kyle Duncan, the teenager appeared again on the end of the play to collect the ball and swerve his way through the Columbus box before nutmegging Eloy Room to give the Red Bulls the opener they desperately needed.
After riding out the remainder of the half (with the help of a dramatic Carlos Coronel save on a Gyasi Zardes breakaway) and discussing the need for better pressing distances in his halftime TV interview, Gerhard Struber chose to mix up the formation for the second period. Tolkin was shifted to left back and replaced in midfield by Frankie Amaya while Andrew Gutman shifted into a center back role. Though much of the half was controlled by a composed New York side, securing the result would not prove easy, as Columbus intermittently found space on counter-attacks often spearheaded by former Red Bulls great Bradley Wright-Phillips. But Carlos Coronel put in an extraordinary performance, with his four saves the difference on the night.
The narrow victory provides a much-needed change of mood around Harrison. Gerhard Struber was back to his old tricks in the post-game presser, flaunting his can of Red Bull with a smile.
“Right now it’s a very good feeling for me and my boys. It’s good to show that we can finally win a result and not just play good football. My boys fought from the first second, even in reacting to a negative situation (the Klimala VAR penalty.)”
Goalscorer Tolkin emphasized the crucial saves made by Coronel postgame before captain Sean Davis set the tone for the derby against New York City FC in just two days.
“It’s a good feeling right now, but let’s not get comfortable at all. We need everybody focused and regenerating in the best way possible. The most important game is Saturday and it’s going to be an absolute war.”
When asked what his emphasis was going to be for the remainder of the week, Struber held his Red Bull to the camera and grinned: “it’s simple...we have the right drink.”
A company man through-and-through, Struber still gives off the confidence of a man secure in the project he is building despite the team’s dip in form. But as forward-looking as the Austrian has increasingly been in recent weeks, the weekend derby against high-flying City is perhaps the biggest emotional test of his young team’s progress yet.