New York Red Bulls eked out a 1-0 win over Chicago Fire Wednesday that was largely as insufferable as the midday sun over Red Bull Arena.
Captain Thierry Henry rolled back the years with a flash of brilliance to settle the outcome on 71 minutes. The Frenchman took countryman Sebastien Le Toux’s long diagonal ball down on his chest before lashing an unstoppable left-foot half-volley in off Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson’s far post.
It was a sublime moment that stood out on an afternoon of lethargic layoffs and careless control from Henry. He wasn’t alone. Both teams struggled to inject any zest into their attacking play as temperatures topped 100 degrees at kick-off.
Red Bulls Head Coach Hans Backe reverted to New York’s familiar 4-4-2 formation after his disastrous experiment with a 4-3-3 in the opening minutes of last Sunday’s 2-2 tie with Seattle Sounders.
Former Chicago defender Wilman Conde partnered Markus Holgersson in central defense after Rafael Marquez exited Sunday’s game on 21 minutes with a reported calf injury. Top scorer Kenny Cooper was left on the substitutes’ bench as Backe opted to pair Henry with new signing Le Toux in attack. Victor Palsson picked up his fourth start of the season in midfield with Connor Lade also slipping to the sidelines.
Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas made two changes from his side’s 1-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps Saturday. Dan Gargan came into the back line to replace the suspended Arne Friedrich. The veteran German international received the first red card of his short Major League Soccer career at the weekend following two fouls on Whitecaps rookie Darren Mattocks.
Marco Pappa replaced Patrick Nyarko in Chicago’s forward trio providing support behind lone striker Dominic Oduro.
First Half Stalemate As Searing Heat Saps Sharpness
The visitors found their passing rhythm early on with former Mexican international Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause linking effectively with Pappa, Chris Rolfe and recent arrival Alex across Chicago’s midfield.
Mehdi Ballouchy’s clumsy foul on Gonzalo Segares gave the Fire their first opportunity to test Red Bulls goalkeeper Bill Gaudette on nine minutes. The St. John’s University alum stood firm to punch Pardo’s inswinging cross to safety.
Oduro’s skill and speed of thought got him in behind Holgersson on 13 minutes. Conde covered well to deflect the former Red Bulls’ striker’s shot out for a corner.
Henry’s sharpness was absent at the other end. The former Arsenal star’s last MLS goal had come against New England Revolution on April 28 – a game he left midway through the first half with a hamstring strain. Le Toux released his strike partner down the inside-left channel on 16 minutes, giving Henry the chance to attack Gargan in a 1-vs-1. He shifted the ball to his left before tamely side-footing it into Johnson’s grasp.
Most of the Red Bulls’ forays into Chicago’s half were coming down the right side. Ballouchy vacated the touchline dragging Pardo inside with him and opening space for Brandon Barklage to progress into. The right-back was given too much room to advance onto Holgersson’s pass on 21 minutes, allowing him to pick out Ballouchy at the edge of the Fire’s penalty area. The Moroccan stepped outside Segares before drilling a low shot on target that Johnson pushed wide for a corner.
Dax McCarty picked out Henry with a cross-field switch from inside the center-circle on 25 minutes. Workhorse Le Toux sprinted toward the penalty spot in support, but Henry blazed his first-time shot high and wide.
Henry’s touch improved on 32 minutes when he released Le Toux over the top. The man from Upper Normandy showed his class to lob the advancing Johnson, though his execution was a little heavy.
Barklage continued to find success foraging down New York’s right side. His cross toward the penalty spot on 40 minutes found Le Toux adjusting to fizz an acrobatic bicycle kick over Johnson’s crossbar. The former Vancouver forward had one more chance before half-time, taking Ballouchy’s pass on the right of Chicago’s penalty area. Johnson got down quickly to maintain the stalemate.
Klopas Looks To Support Oduro
Oduro had become isolated as the first half developed. Klopas looked to provide support for him after the break by advancing Rolfe and introducing Nyarko on the right of a flatter midfield. Alex was the player removed.
The changes worked initially as Chicago regained their fluidity and had more bodies threatening in advanced areas. Conde defended brilliantly under pressure from Janil Anibaba to head Pappa’s inswinging corner out from the shadow of his back post. Gargan couldn’t direct his header on goal from Pappa’s follow-up corner.
Backe freshened up his team on 61 minutes by introducing rookie Lade for Palsson. Joel Lindpere moved centrally alongside McCarty. Klopas brought on Colombian Rafael Robayo for the wilting Oduro seconds later.
Chicago’s biggest chance to take the lead arrived on 69 minutes. Henry’s careless pass to Lade was cut out and then Pause stepped in to dispossess the Frenchman as he labored toward the loose ball. Robayo spread the counter-attack wide to Nyarko who had space to drive toward New York’s penalty area. The Ghanaian shifted the ball outside Roy Miller onto his right foot, but then opted to pass inside to Robayo rather than getting his shot away. Robayo also delayed, taking a touch when he had space at the edge of the box to shoot, and his eventual effort was blocked.
Henry Breaks Scoring Duck To Secure Three Points
It seemed only a matter of time before Cooper replaced the stale, flagging Henry. Fortunately for the Red Bulls, Backe held off just long enough to benefit from the captain’s one piece of magic.
Nyarko ran the ball into a dead end down Chicago’s right side, allowing New York to recover possession and spring forward with Lade feeding Le Toux inside the Fire’s half. Henry peeled off Anibaba’s shoulder into space at the back post and Le Toux found his teammate with a perfectly flighted 40-yard pass. Henry’s first touch with his chest angled him into a shooting position away from Anibaba’s recovery. His second touch sent the ball arching into Johnson’s net off the inside of the far post.
Lade forced Johnson to beat his drive around the near post on 75 minutes after he scampered onto Le Toux’s pass as the Red Bulls broke away again. The roles were reversed on 86 minutes when Lade worked his way to the endline after swapping passes with late substitute Cooper. The 22-year-old’s deflected cross looped just out of Le Toux’s reach at the edge of the Fire’s six-yard box.
Chicago had almost tied things by then. The Red Bulls failed to clear Pardo’s inswinging free-kick from the left on 84 minutes and Gargan sent an enticing cross back toward the penalty spot. Substitute Orr Barouch’s flick fell to Segares, but Barklage nodded the Costa Rican’s volley off his goal line.
Gargan launched himself at Segares’ deep cross on 88 minutes as the Fire sought to stay within a point of the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference. His brave effort flew wide of Gaudette’s near post.
Henry’s performance was poor for 70 minutes. His touch was lacking, his sharpness in the final third was non-existent, his passing was largely inaccurate and his three goal-scoring opportunities all ended dismally.
Still, the league’s highest-earning player produced a highlight-reel winner fitting of his elevated status.