New York Red Bulls crushed Columbus Crew 4-1 at Crew Stadium Saturday to take sole possession of second place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference after five rounds.
Kenny Cooper and Thierry Henry each bagged a couple of goals to move their season tallies to six and seven respectively. The Red Bulls’ new front pairing has provided 13 of the team’s 14 goals with Henry assisting Mehdi Ballouchy on the other.
New York began the season sluggishly with two lifeless losses on the road at F.C. Dallas and Real Salt Lake. Colorado Rapids and Montreal Impact helped them on the road to recovery with a catalogue of defensive errors. This was a different story in Ohio as the Red Bulls produced arguably their best performance during Hans Backe’s reign.
Crew Head Coach Robert Warzycha kept the same starting 11 and 4-4-2 formation that triumphed 1-0 over Toronto F.C. at BMO Field on March 31. That meant a second consecutive start for second-year central defender Eric Gehrig alongside captain Chad Marshall.
Backe made two changes from the Red Bulls’ 5-2 win over Montreal at Red Bull Arena a week earlier. Out-of-sorts left-midfielder Joel Lindpere dropped to the substitutes’ bench and was replaced by Ballouchy. Stephen Keel came in to central defense for the injured Wilman Conde.
Ballouchy’s introduction provoked an effective shift in New York’s attacking movement. The Moroccan prefers to drift infield rather than drive down the touchline like Lindpere. That additional cover in the center gave Dax McCarty the freedom to regularly attack the penalty box, safe in the knowledge that Ballouchy and Rafael Marquez were behind him. It also opened up space for Roy Miller to push high up the left side.
The Red Bulls went ahead within three minutes. Cooper laid the ball off to Henry in midfield and strode into the penalty area for a return pass. The former Dallas striker shoved off Gehrig at the edge of the area as Henry’s ball arrived before swiveling to beat Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum with a left-foot shot from 15 yards.
Backe has challenged his new signing to be more aggressive around the penalty area and to use his 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound frame to his advantage. Cooper outmuscled Gehrig again on seven minutes, turning the defender at the edge of the penalty area before finding Ballouchy in support. A shooting chance didn’t materialize on this occasion.
Much has been made of Luke Rodgers’ absence, but the Red Bulls already had an upgrade in Cooper. The 27-year-old was good enough to start his professional career at Manchester United and netted 40 goals in 94 games for Dallas prior to his ill-fated move back to Europe in 2009. Cooper is fast for his size, good in the air, can finish with both feet, and he’s already striking up a great relationship with Henry.
The two forwards cleverly combined on eight minutes to release Henry down the left wing, but Gruenebaum intercepted the Frenchman’s cross.
New York’s movement was significantly improved from their opening four games and they extended their lead on 13 minutes. Dane Richards drifted in from the right to receive a pass from McCarty and jinked away from Bernardo Anor to create space for a shot. The Jamaican’s effort looped off Gehrig toward the 6-yard line where Cooper diligently guided his header inside Gruenebaum’s left post.
The visitors kept stretching their struggling opponent. Marquez thrust down the right wing on 15 minutes before finding Jan Gunnar Solli with a cute backheel. Cooper laid the Norwegian’s cross back to Ballouchy who kept the ball moving left to Henry on the corner of the penalty box. The captain’s shot was blocked as he tried to bend it into the far corner.
Richards blazed high and wide three minutes later after Solli released him with a perfect ball inside Crew left-back Shaun Francis.
Crew’s Defensive Struggles
Injuries to Julius James and former Red Bull Danny O’Rourke have denied Warzycha the services of two commanding central defenders. Gehrig doesn’t hold the same presence. The Loyola University product struggled to track New York’s forward movement and was losing physical battles against Cooper and Henry. Gehrig bounced off the Red Bulls captain on 23 minutes when trying to make a challenge.
The Crew’s defensive problems could be seen in the positioning of their center-backs. Marshall started on the left with Gehrig on the right, but the two regularly switched over during a ragged first half display.
Olman Vargas had a fleeting chance to haul Columbus back into the game on 34 minutes. Kirk Urso’s free kick found the Costa Rican forward wide open in front of goal. He contrived to head over Ryan Meara’s crossbar and New York quickly regained the upper hand.
Henry almost found the net on 37 minutes after being given far too much space around the edge of the penalty box. Marquez slipped a pass to Cooper on the right and the former Arsenal man headed his cross powerfully toward goal. Gruenebaum dived to his left to make the save.
It briefly delayed Henry’s name from being added to the scoreboard. The Crew’s defense disintegrated on 40 minutes after Eddie Gaven unsuccessfully committed to a sliding interception in midfield. Columbus’ other midfielders were caught too far left, exposing right-back Sebastian Miranda to a two-on-one situation against Henry and Miller. Henry moved into space as Miranda was attracted toward the ball, took a touch to control Miller’s pass and coolly side-footed his shot into Gruenebaum’s far corner.
Second Half Procession
New York’s desire to push forward continued in the opening minutes of the second half. McCarty took a pass from Richards on 47 minutes and found himself with four teammates to pick out inside the Crew’s penalty area. That simply didn’t happen in the Red Bulls’ season-opening defeats at Dallas and Salt Lake.
Complacency soon set in among the Red Bulls’ players and Columbus created a few chances to notch a goal back. Emilio Renteria slid his shot on the turn narrowly past Meara’s far post on 63 minutes. The rookie goalkeeper stood tall to deny Ethan Findlay with a kick-save a minute later and Renteria headed Francis’ cross wide from six yards when he seemed certain to score as the hosts kept up the pressure. Urso came closer yet on 72 minutes when his dipping 25-yard shot dropped onto Meara’s crossbar.
Columbus finally broke through on 89 minutes to deny Meara his first professional shutout. Marshall shrugged off Swedish defender Markus Holgersson and headed Urso’s inswinging corner into the net from inside the 6-yard box.
Henry restored New York’s three-goal margin within a minute. Late substitute Lindpere scampered away from the tormented Gehrig on the left touchline and picked out his teammate in acres of space at the back post. Henry took the ball on his chest, let it bounce, and scorched a right-foot half-volley beyond the helpless Gruenebaum.
The Red Bulls’ goalscoring form exploded in the past fortnight with nine goals against Colorado and Montreal. That total flattered them – seven of those goals resulted from defensive mishaps and one came from a highly dubious penalty award. This was far more encouraging. The movement of Cooper, Henry, Richards, McCarty and Miller stretched Columbus’ defense and created a stack of first-half chances for the visitors. Backe’s side looks to have regained a spirit that hasn’t been visible in almost a year.
Columbus still contributed to their downfall with some sloppy defending and wasted goalscoring opportunities. Getting James or O’Rourke healthy and back on the field is vital to boosting their resilience.