Yesterday afternoon, as the sky darkened an hour early, and as the cold November wind blew around the arena, the New York Red Bulls kept a clean sheet against a DC United team and had Thanksgiving coming a few weeks early for their fans. Coach Mike Petke had talked about the importance of away goals in a press conference on Friday, talked about having the team keep it somewhere in the back of their minds, but few would have imagined a 2-0 result.
The Red Bulls came into the match tired. They had played on Thursday night against Sporting Kansas City in a knockout game, and less than 72 hours later, took on Eastern Division leaders DC United. With only one change to the starters, Peguy Luyindula starting in midfield rather than Tim Cahill, it was twenty tired legs that took to the pitch to contest the first of a two game series that will conclude next Saturday down the I-95 corridor.
There were fewer fans and fewer excuses to miss the game as well. Granted that it was cold, that you couldn’t find a hot chocolate anywhere but at one stand in the arena in the second half, a stand that had no caps for the cups, it was a flawless night. With a goal in each half, the Red Bulls gave their fans an absorbing game, a game that kept them loud, that kept the supporters on their feet, while the DC United fans, who started the game in a packed visitors section, waving flags and roaring over their own beating drums, got quieter as the game progressed. And while the rivalry between the two teams may be hot, but it didn’t translate onto the concourse at the break or at the end of the game.
The story on the pitch was another matter. Both teams had very near chances in the first half, DC United controlling the play for the first fifteen minutes. Whether it was the fans, or whether it was the cool weather, the Red Bulls started moving the ball hotly, creating opportunities, and putting the United team on the back foot. Bradley Wright-Phillips started the scoring in the 39th minute when Thierry Henry sent the ball back behind himself and Luyindula had the composure to let it go by to the feet of Wright-Phillips. 1-0. DC United had no response.
In the second half, Luyindula took a long ball from Thierry Henry in the 73rd minute and sent it in for the team’s second goal of the game. “More, more, we want more,” chanted a fan nearby, the words not picked up by the fans around him, but agreed with wholeheartedly. It was a less aggressive game that against Sporting KC, but tempers did flare.
By the end of the game it seemed like the referee had an endless supply of yellow cards for the Red Bull team that he wanted to get rid of before the full 90 minutes expired. As the added three minutes dragged by, fans whistled down to the pitch, trying to prompt the referee into whistling the game done. The Red Bulls did it, perhaps to the surprise of all 18,054 fans who were in the arena, the DC fans included. Even the back four were together in a way rarely seen in the season, winning cheers instead of groans.
Even more surprising was the absence of questions about Thierry Henry’s status for next season in the press conference at the end of the game. Henry, who was voted man of the match, walked down the carpet to the locker room with Gerard Houllier, but nothing was brought up in the conference with Mike Petke.
The coach had this to say about the game in his opening remarks: “It’s a good result, and the most important thing is that we got the shutout. No away goals for them and we go back to D.C. 2-0 up. It’s far from over though. D.C. won the East this year for many reasons, one of them being that they get results. They’re organized and hard-working, so we know it’s going to be a fight next weekend.”
It isn’t over yet, but the win, and the clean sheet goes a long way toward keeping the dream alive. As Mike Petke said: “I just think it’s a pride thing, they understand now that it’s really crunch time, next weekend could be our last game if we don’t approach it the right way, and we don’t go in there and get the job done. I think, I know, that these guys don’t want to stop playing next weekend, especially after 10 months, from preseason on, 10 months of going at it. Perhaps they’re a little more tuned in, and have a little bit more of that motivation and edge.”
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