Whisper it. New York Red Bulls are top of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference.
Seven wins in the past nine games, including Sunday’s 3-2 defeat of 10-man Philadelphia Union, have carried the Red Bulls above Sporting Kansas City despite a rash of injuries and lackluster performances.
Freddy Adu’s controversial first-half dismissal and an astounding miss by Union right-back Michael Farfan helped Hans Backe’s side to an unlikely fourth-straight victory and their first points at PPL Park.
Union Head Coach Peter Novak overhauled his roster during the winter. The changes have continued throughout this season. None of Philadelphia’s back four from their season opener at Portland Timbers on March 12 were picked for the same roles Sunday.
Central defender Carlos Valdes has moved to the left of the back pairing with Danny Califf set to be traded away. Sheanon Williams has moved from right-back to partner the Colombian international. Farfan has dropped to right-back from an attacking role, and rookie Raymon Gaddis has replaced Porfilio Lopez at left-back.
Novak’s formation has also developed into a 4-3-3, with struggling Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy occupying the left side rather than starting as the lone front man in a 4-2-3-1 line-up.
Backe sprung two surprises following New York’s 1-0 win over Houston Dynamo in midweek. Rafael Marquez returned to the midfield holding position following his three-game suspension and subsequent left ankle injury. Dax McCarty reverted back to a more advanced role after the 25-year-old had excelled in his past four games. Joel Lindpere moved to the left of midfield with Jan Gunnar Solli injured.
The Swedish coach also kept faith with Mehdi Ballouchy as Kenny Cooper’s strike partner despite his abominable display against Houston. Juan Agudelo forced Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall into his only two saves of the game after his half-time introduction. That wasn’t enough to earn the teenager a place in Backe’s starting 11.
Roy Miller’s return from injury saw rookie Connor Lade drop to the substitutes’ bench.
Familiar Tune As Red Bulls Snatch Undeserved Lead
New York have developed a habit of taking scarcely deserved leads and digging in to protect them in recent weeks. Whether that’s the sign of a good team or a lucky one is yet to be determined. Lindpere punished the Union’s defensive disarray on 17 minutes to put the visitors ahead with their only shot of the first half.
Philadelphia’s four defenders somehow formed a square rather than a back line as Farfan and Valdes mindlessly pressed toward Miller on the halfway line. The Costa Rican lobbed the ball over the Union’s remaining defenders for Ballouchy to chase. The Moroccan held off Gaddis and laid the ball into Lindpere’s path for the Estonian to smash beyond Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath.
Good teams defend far better than New York are doing, but the Union were unable to punish three errors from Markus Holgersson in the opening half-hour. Keon Daniel couldn’t adjust to turn the ball toward goal when Holgersson inexplicably left a cross ball on seven minutes, and the Swede’s terrible giveaway five minutes later ended with Adu’s shot being deflected for a corner.
Pajoy turned Holgersson inside the penalty box on 24 minutes after the defender got too close to his man. The striker forced rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara into a good save low to his left.
The hosts finally punished New York’s slackness on 31 minutes. Cooper headed Adu’s corner back out to the far-traveled winger, and his second attempt found Tyler Ruthven and Brandon Barklage too advanced of the near post. An unmarked Pajoy beat Meara with a firm header from six yards.
Pajoy has struggled to find the net since arriving from the Colombian league in February. He blew a great chance to give his side the lead on 38 minutes. Marquez trotted away from Adu in the midfield rather than stepping up to pressure the ball. That gave the U.S. international space to clip a pass behind Ruthven and Holgersson for Pajoy to attack. He carried the ball into the penalty area before firing his shot well wide of Meara’s near post.
Adu’s drifting inside and deep from the right wing wasn’t being tracked by Marquez as it would have been by McCarty. The threat was snuffed out on 43 minutes when Adu received a controversial, but correct, second booking. Miller and McCarty converged on Adu as he jinked for space inside the penalty area before tumbling to the ground. Referee Jorge Gonzalez viewed it as a dive.
Philadelphia Undeterred By Numerical Disadvantage
The 10 men took the lead within 21 seconds of the restart with New York’s defense in typical disarray. Brian Carroll’s header found Danny Mwanga in space with Pajoy and Gabriel Gomez in support against two defenders as Barklage and Marquez were caught out of position. Holgersson missed his challenge on Pajoy and the striker slotted the ball under Meara into the empty net.
Philadelphia’s numerical deficiency didn’t deter them. It often looked like Novak’s team held the advantage as they exploited the spaces being left in front of New York’s defense by Marquez. Mwanga should have been more direct when one-vs-one against Holgersson at the edge of the box on 64 minutes. He hesitated, waiting for support, and the chance was lost.
Backe Makes Adjustments To Control Midfield
Icelandic midfielder Victor Palsson replaced Ruthven on 64 minutes as Backe switched to a 3-5-2 formation. Marquez dropped between Holgersson and Barklage with McCarty now tasked with protecting New York’s defense. Miller advanced down the left as Lindpere moved into a central attacking midfield role.
The Red Bulls equalized four minutes later from Barklage’s outswinging corner. The giant Holgersson shrugged off Daniel to head into MacMath’s unguarded far post.
Marquez’ withdrawn position twinned with Philadelphia’s weariness gave the Mexican 20 yards of space whenever he picked up possession. Still, his nonchalance almost gifted a third goal to the Union on 73 minutes. Gomez charged down the dallying designated player in the center circle and sprinted toward New York’s penalty area before squaring the ball to Pajoy. The Colombian dragged his shot wide of Meara’s far post.
Instead it was a defensive error provoked by Marquez that led to the game winner on 78 minutes. Valdes misjudged the former Barcelona man’s long chip into the box, allowing Cooper to dart behind him and bustle past MacMath before finishing from a tight angle.
New York’s Great Escape
Farfan let New York off the hook on 86 minutes with the miss of the season as Nowak’s short-handed side pressed for a late leveler. The Red Bulls’ defense didn’t track substitute Josue Martinez’ near-post run from a free kick and his flick-on found Farfan alone at the back post. The defender had only to direct the ball into an empty net from one yard out yet he somehow guided the ball across Meara’s goal line. An astonished Valdes couldn’t react to steer the ball into the goal.
The drama still wasn’t over. Marquez appeared to have concrete in his cleats as he froze when Farfan’s free kick came toward him in the fourth minute of stoppage time. The ball broke off the hapless Mexican into the path of Pajoy. Meara bailed out his misfiring defense by hurling himself at the striker’s feet to block his shot from a couple of yards out.
The Red Bulls’ 4-1 thumping at D.C. United on April 22 didn’t come as a surprise given their propensity for wretched defending. That defeat left them with 10 points from seven games, three ahead of Philadelphia who had played six times.
The Union have been unfortunate to lose by the odd goal to San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders and New York since then. The Red Bulls have ridden their luck to pick up maximum points against New England Revolution, Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston and now Philadelphia.
Sunday’s game demonstrated little gap between the two teams, even after Adu’s ejection, although the league table now shows a 15-point difference. New York still requires major improvements if they are to be considered as serious title contenders despite their current lofty position.