Harrisburg’s Game Plan Works To Dump Red Bulls From Open Cup

Written by Ian Thomson
Harrisburg City Islanders kept their composure to shock the traveling New York Red Bulls fans (Photo: Ian Thomson)

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Harrisburg City Islanders claimed the biggest scalp in Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 games. Two goals from Gambian forward Sainey Touray triggered the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division side’s 3-1 extra-time win over New York Red Bulls at the Skyline Sports Complex.

The visitors struggled to put the finishing touches to their attacking moves as Harrisburg conceded space on the wings to focus on packing their penalty area. Central defenders Tom Brandt and Andrew Marshall snuffed out the aerial threat of Red Bulls striker Kenny Cooper, while captain Jason Pelletier excelled in front of his back four.

Line-Ups

Harrisburg's midfield stayed narrow with deep-lying captain Pelletier giving them a 3-vs-2 advantage in the center

Harrisburg fielded the same starting 11 that staged a remarkable comeback against New England Revolution a week earlier. The Islanders trailed 3-0 with just nine minutes of extra time remaining before rallying to win in a penalty shootout.

Head Coach Bill Becher sought to stifle the Red Bulls by tightly packing his midfield in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Pelletier guarded the space between the defensive and midfield lines while Andrew Welker dropped off the front to give Harrisburg a 3-vs-2 numerical advantage in the center.

Brian Ombiji and Morgan Langley operated as wide midfielders when Harrisburg were in possession. Both players tucked infield during the defensive phase.

New York full-backs Lade and Solli operated further forward with Lindpere and Richards on international duty

Red Bulls Head Coach Hans Backe also kept the same starting line-up from a week earlier when New York rolled over the USL Pro’s Charleston Battery by 3-0. International call-ups for Estonian Joel Lindpere and Jamaican Dane Richards meant Backe was shorn of his attacking menace from out wide. Regular full-backs Connor Lade and Jan Gunnar Solli filled in.

Jhonny Arteaga, the top scorer in last season’s USL Pro during his time with F.C. New York, partnered Cooper as Thierry Henry didn’t travel.

Red Bulls On Top From Opening Kick

Brandt’s defensive work began in the third minute when he snuffed out a Mehdi Ballouchy pass into the box for Arteaga at the expense of a corner. The 5’11” center-back won his first aerial test against the 6’3” Cooper to clear Ballouchy’s inswinging corner kick.

Cooper won the battle from Ballouchy’s next corner on seven minutes. His header from a tight angle beyond the back post fell straight into the grasp of Harrisburg goalkeeper Nick Noble.

Touray’s task as a lone forward was being made harder by Wilman Conde’s reading of the game. The Colombian defender dominated the opening aerial exchanges and sharply stepped in to intercept a couple of forward passes before Touray could get the ball under control. That prevented Harrisburg’s midfield from moving forward in support of the former Red Bulls reserve team striker.

Harrisburg Take The Lead On The Counter-Attack

Space did open up for Touray on 13 minutes after a quick Islanders’ counter-attack, and the 22-year-old showed his finishing abilities with a firm header into Ryan Meara’s bottom-left corner.

Pelletier won possession from Dax McCarty on the edge of Harrisburg’s penalty area before springing an attack down the left side. Ombiji wriggled into space to find the perfect cross for Touray to convert.

Former Red Bulls reserve striker Touray netted twice for the City Islanders (Photo: Ian Thomson)

The Islanders had a quick chance to double their advantage after referee Robert Sibiga awarded a dubious foul against McCarty when J.T. Noone appeared to stumble. Pelletier’s accurate 35-yard shot lacked the power to beat Meara.

Islanders Sacrifice Flanks To Defend Centrally

Lade was finding space to push forward as Langley drifted into a central position. The Red Bulls rookie received further encouragement to advance on 28 minutes when Harrisburg right-back Bilal Duckett was cautioned for bringing him down with a late challenge.

By now the Islanders were reduced to relying on quick transitions to mount their attacks. Welker dispossessed Heath Pearce on the halfway line on 30 minutes, but Touray’s forward run carried him into an offside position. Still, the Gambian’s constant threat was apparent.

Conde began carrying the ball into midfield toward the end of the first half to alleviate the burden on the outnumbered McCarty and Ballouchy. Arteaga, who’d missed the target with an earlier attempt, screwed a second shot wide of the far post after Solli cut the ball back to him at the corner of the penalty box.

McCarty headed wide from Ballouchy’s free-kick on 38 minutes, Cooper saw his effort blocked following another Solli cutback three minutes later, and Conde forced one final save from Noble before the interval.

Visitors’ Pressure Builds In Second Half

Harrisburg started the game with their midfield positioned close to the halfway line during the defensive phase. Now they were being forced 15 yards back into their own half as New York pushed for the equalizer. The Islanders continued to give up huge spaces in the wide areas for Lade, Solli and Brandon Barklage to exploit.

Solli had 20 yards of space near the endline to deliver two successive crosses on 51 minutes. Harrisburg’s defense cleared stoutly as their 9-man blockade stationed around the penalty area continued to thwart the Red Bulls.

The equalizer finally arrived via a defensive error on 59 minutes. Duckett and Marshall hesitated rather than clearing Markus Holgersson’s hopeful punt into the penalty area. Lade seized upon the loose ball to place his first-time shot into Noble’s far corner. The timing was particularly unfortunate for Becher, who was preparing to freshen his midfield’s pressing by bringing in Yann Ekra for Welker.

McCarty didn’t get enough height or strength on his attempted lob after 66 minutes to beat Noble, and Barklage skewed a half-volley well off target a minute later after Holgersson’s direct ball out of defense found him in space in Harrisburg’s penalty area.

The goalpost denied McCarty’s 25-yard blast on 70 minutes, Solli botched a free header from six yards, and Cooper blazed high and wide after shrugging off Brandt’s challenge.

Becher made another couple of midfield changes in an attempt to keep the Red Bulls at bay – Lucky Mkosana replaced Langley and Tom Mellor came on for Ombiji. Harrisburg had the best chance to finish the game in normal time when Ekra met a cross from the right. The young Ivorian’s downward header bounced too close to his feet, allowing Meara to make a comfortable save.

Spurned Chances And Lack Of Alternatives Bite Backe

Backe has said that he’s much happier with the depth of his roster this year. His squad wasn’t quite deep enough to cope with this tricky U.S. Open Cup tie during a week when a number of his star players were on national team duty. Stephen Keel, Jonathan Borrajo and Ryan Maduro – his three available outfield substitutes – remained on the bench as extra-time commenced.

Harrisburg re-established their lead four minutes into the first half with another quick move engineered by Pelletier. The 27-year-old sprang New York’s defense with a measured pass beyond Holgersson for Touray to chase. The pacey forward graciously flicked the ball past the advancing Meara.

Harrisburg captain Pelletier impressed with his defensive and offensive play (Photo: Ian Thomson)

New York came back with a flurry of corners before the turnaround, but still Brandt, Marshall and the Harrisburg defense held out. McCarty headed tamely at Noble from Ballouchy’s free-kick on 107 minutes and Cooper made space for a near-post shot that the goalkeeper fisted away six minutes later.

The Islanders had chances to counter, and eventually sealed their quarter-final place with three minutes remaining after Meara had clawed Mellor’s teasing cross out for a corner. Ekra and Mkosana held the ball near the corner flag to waste a few seconds before the cat-and-mouse opened a path to goal. Mkosana drilled a low shot into Meara’s net.

Conclusion

This was a classic cup tie doggedly contested on a bumpy field surrounded by quaint, temporary bleacher seats and an embankment lined with fans in picnic chairs. Harrisburg’s tenacity and unyielding spirit compensated for their technical inferiority and the pain of New York’s defeat was evident in the way Backe and many of his players trudged toward the team bus after the game without talking to the media.

Becher’s game plan, conceding so much space in wide areas, was a calculated gamble to ensure that the strike threat from Cooper, this season’s joint-top scorer in Major League Soccer, was nullified. It worked. The cunningness and dribbling skills of Lindpere and Richards were sadly missed by a rather static, one-dimensional New York.

See here for The Soccer Observer’s picture gallery from Skyline Sports Complex.