Red Bulls Hold Off Rivals D.C. United In East Coast Classic

Written by Ian Thomson
Red Bulls’ defender Brandon Barklage netted his first ever MLS goals against his former side D.C. United (Photo: Ian Thomson)

HARRISON, N.J. — D.C. United had just relinquished their first-minute lead during Sunday’s Major League Soccer clash with New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena when their captain Dwayne De Rosario found space to carry the ball menacingly into the attacking third. Mexican defender Rafael Marquez lost his focus, wandering into limbo between the Red Bulls’ defense and midfield, opening a huge gap behind him for United’s goalscorer Chris Pontius to exploit.

De Rosario slid the ball into the forward’s path, seemingly putting Pontius through for a one-on-one with Red Bulls’ goalkeeper Ryan Meara. The 25-year-old cocked his left leg, took aim, and prepared to silence the sellout crowd again.

A white knight charged onto the scene, bustling with energy and a deep-rooted desire to repel United’s attack – his former club’s attack. Gasps encompassing the stadium morphed into relieved roars as the feisty figure of Brandon Barklage hurled a leg in front of Pontius, blocking his shot and retaining the parity that Barklage had restored two minutes earlier.

This moment didn’t generate any headlines, but Barklage’s challenge was as vital as his two goals that bookended it to help the Red Bulls to a captivating 3-2 win over their I-95 rivals.

Line-Ups

Backe pulled a surprise by using Lindpere as the second forward supporting Cooper, a position that Ballouchy has filled regularly this season

New York Head Coach Hans Backe made two enforced changes following his team’s 1-1 tie at Vancouver Whitecaps last Wednesday due to Dane Richards’ suspension and Markus Holgersson’s sprained ankle. Marquez replaced the Swede alongside stand-in captain Heath Pearce in central defense, and Mehdi Ballouchy returned to the midfield.

Backe made one key tactical switch by pushing Joel Lindpere forward as the supporting striker behind Kenny Cooper. Ballouchy has occupied this position on a handful of occasions this season. Lindpere was fatigued after the Red Bulls’ road trip to Chicago and Vancouver. The change was designed to reduce the Estonian’s running, Backe told The Soccer Observer during his post-match press conference.

Olsen’s familiar 4-4-2 formation paired Pontius and Salihi up front with De Rosario supporting from midfield

United Head Coach Ben Olsen also made two changes from D.C.’s previous outing – a 1-0 victory at Philadelphia Union that stretched their winning run to four games. Right-midfielder Andy Najar and forward Maicon Santos dropped to the bench with Danny Cruz and Hamdi Salihi replacing them.

Barklage Leads Red Bulls’ Stampede Against Former Club

Barklage’s brace, his first ever MLS goals, gave the Red Bulls a deserved 2-1 lead at half-time over the club he represented 11 times in the past three seasons. That was despite D.C. United going ahead after 29 seconds. Cruz worked a one-two with De Rosario down the right shortly after kick-off that got the winger in behind Roy Miller. Pontius’ crossover run to the front post left Barklage unsure whether to keep tracking his man or pass him over to Marquez. Neither happened. Pontius steered his free header into Meara’s net.

The Red Bulls’ responded immediately. Dax McCarty, another player who failed to make an impact in the capital, seized upon Brandon McDonald’s weak clearing header from Barklage’s cross on three minutes and cracked a half-volley off Bill Hamid’s crossbar.

That buoyed the home side, and Marquez kickstarted another attack by stepping into midfield to intercept the ball and find Ballouchy in space. The Moroccan orchestrated the move from left to right. Cooper rose to meet Jan Gunnar Solli’s cross, but the former F.C. Dallas striker couldn’t find the target.

Ballouchy found more accuracy in his header from Lindpere’s inswinging cross four minutes later. Hamid scrambled to his right to tip the ball away.

D.C. United conceded another corner on 20 minutes when their defense reacted slowly to Solli’s blocked cross. Barklage sprinted toward the 6-yard box ahead of De Rosario to volley Lindpere’s outswinger beyond Hamid for the equalizing goal.

United’s Deeper Midfield Allows Red Bulls To Build Play

United’s 4-1 thumping of the Red Bulls in April owed much to their high pressing of New York’s blundering defense. Not one of the Red Bulls’ back line players from that game occupied the same position here. Connor Lade and Solli operated in midfield, Stephen Keel was on the substitutes’ bench and Holgersson was injured. D.C. were content to drop into their own half away from home, allowing Meara to distribute the ball to Marquez, Pearce, and the deep-lying McCarty.

That allowed New York to become settled in possession and build their attacks. Cooper tested Hamid with a low drive from the edge of the box on 27 minutes and McCarty couldn’t quite reach Lindpere’s corner four minutes later. The Estonian couldn’t adjust his body shape on 42 minutes to guide his volley on target from Ballouchy’s cross.

Pearce even joined the attack, bringing the crowd to their feet with a stepover and shuffle down the left wing that left Cruz prostrate.

The Red Bulls finally went ahead in first-half stoppage time. Referee Mark Geiger awarded a dubious free kick in the hosts’ favor after Robbie Russell and Ballouchy contested a loose ball at the edge of D.C.’s penalty area. Barklage kept his eyes firmly on the ball after Marquez’ effort spun high and sideways off the defensive wall, and the defender struck a sumptuous volley inside Hamid’s far post from the right corner of the box.

Solli’s First MLS Goal Extends New York’s Advantage

Chances were traded at the start of the second half. Cooper almost extended New York’s lead within 50 seconds of the restart with a powerful left-foot shot that Hamid diverted away to his left. Russell wheeled on the edge of New York’s 6-yard box on 50 minutes to fire a shot over Meara’s crossbar, and Pearce volleyed straight at Hamid on 53 minutes after McCarty flicked on Lindpere’s free kick.

New York doubled their lead on 55 minutes with another flowing move starting from a Marquez interception. The much-maligned designated player broke into D.C.’s half before finding Ballouchy on the left touchline. Lindpere broke into the inside left channel between United’s stretched defense and pulled his cross back to the 6-yard line where Solli and Marquez were arriving. Hamid’s outstretched leg thwarted Solli’s first attempt, but the Norwegian smacked the rebound in off the right post.

Marquez has been criticized over the past two years for a number of uninterested performances. This wasn’t one of them. He remained alert both in possession and in his defending. Pearce, with 35 U.S. national team appearances and a couple of seasons in the German Bundesliga in his locker, might just carry the requisite stature and quality to keep the Mexican in check, unlike his previous center-back partners including Keel and Tim Ream.

United Head Coach Ben Olsen watches on as the Red Bulls seize the initiative during Sunday’s first half (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Late Charge From United As Red Bulls Fade

Olsen replaced the indistinct Salihi with Santos at the interval, and brought on Branko Boskovic for Cruz on 59 minutes with United chasing a two-goal deficit. Pontius dropped to the right of midfield and De Rosario moved up front to accommodate the Montenegrin playmaker.

McCarty made a vital block on his 6-yard line within seconds of Olsen’s second change to stop De Rosario’s effort. McDonald misdirected his back-post header from De Leon’s follow-up cross.

Pontius pulled the visitors back to 3-2 on 66 minutes with a little help from the assistant referee. Santos played a one-two with De Rosario before sliding a delightful pass into New York’s penalty box between Pearce and Miller. Pontius appeared to be marginally offside. Play continued, and he coolly rounded Meara to slot home his fifth goal against the Red Bulls this season.

Flying winger Najar replaced the disappointing Nick DeLeon for the visitors with 20 minutes remaining, and Backe brought on Thierry Henry for the tiring Lindpere.

Najar immediately caused problems for Miller down New York’s left side when he collected a loose ball on the run and darted inside the Costa Rican full-back. Barklage covered expertly to intercept the Honduran’s through ball looking for Santos inside the penalty area.

Pontius fired over from the edge of the 6-yard box on 75 minutes after another D.C. raid down the right side involving Najar and De Rosario. Backe sought to stem the tide by introducing Icelandic central-midfielder Victor Palsson for Miller. Lade retreated to left-back and Ballouchy moved wide to the touchline.

Santos stepped inside Lade on 80 minutes after being picked out in the box by Boskovic. The Brazilian’s left-foot shot was too weak to trouble Meara. Russell generated power with his effort three minutes later. The burly defender couldn’t keep his shot under the bar.

Henry broke away twice at the other end in the closing minutes and the Frenchman should have put the result out of D.C.’s reach. The former Arsenal striker finished weakly on each occasion to keep the visitors alive.

Left-back Daniel Woolard surged forward on the overlap outside Santos on 88 minutes before sliding a low cross along the 6-yard box toward De Rosario. Lade appeared to impede the Canadian as he prepared to side-foot the ball into a gaping net. The assistant referee’s flag indicated that D.C.’s captain had strayed slightly offside.

Another offside call thwarted De Rosario in the first minute of stoppage time, ruling out his low shot inside Meara’s far post after Najar dispossessed McCarty to set up his teammate.

Late Red Bulls’ substitute Keel made one final interception to preserve the scoreline and take Backe’s side level with D.C. United at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Conclusion

Backe described New York’s performance during the first 55 minutes as “the most complete we’ve ever played” during his time at the club. The Red Bulls haven’t been utterly convincing on their way to a 9-4-3 record so far this year and have been overwhelmed on the road at Dallas, Salt Lake City, D.C. and Chicago.

They remain undefeated at Red Bull Arena with five wins in seven games, and a buoyant stadium-record crowd of 25,187 helped the Red Bulls to shrug off their early setback.

D.C. remain top of the Eastern Conference on goal difference, though they’ve played more games than New York and third-placed Sporting Kansas City. Olsen needs more consistency from his wide midfielders. Cruz faded from the game after his assist on Pontius’ first goal, and rookie DeLeon’s form has slumped as the season wears on. Najar and Pontius carried a much greater threat to New York in the final 20 minutes, and the visitors were ultimately unfortunate to pinch a share of the points.

Red Bulls’ fans with a pre-game message for their D.C. rivals (Photo: Ian Thomson)