New York Red Bulls carried Major League Soccer’s best home record into Wednesday’s Eastern Conference clash with leaders Sporting Kansas City. Ten wins and three ties from 13 games at Red Bull Arena gave Hans Backe’s side an air of invincibility in New Jersey despite poor performances on the road and in a handful of those home games.
The veneer has finally been shattered. Sporting strolled to an assertive 2-0 win through early goals by C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara that boosted their lead to four points over Chicago Fire and five over New York. It was another evening that caused much head-scratching over Backe’s vision for his side.
A dreadful turnover by Rafael Marquez and a lapse by Wilman Conde put New York into a hole after 19 minutes that they never looked likely to climb out of. Sporting happily conceded possession thereafter and settled for striking on the counter attack. Two missed penalty calls and a fabulous Bill Gaudette save prevented further humiliation for the most expensively assembled side in MLS history.
New York mustered just two goals attempts when these sides met at Livestrong Sporting Park on Aug. 26. Neither hit the target. Goals at either end by Kamara allowed the Red Bulls to escape with an undeserved point.
Backe handed the initiative to Sporting again by selecting just one forward. Dax McCarty, the best holding midfielder in the league this year, was shunted to the right side to accommodate the hapless Marquez and the equally unproductive Teemu Tainio. Conde, a renowned central defender, continued at left-back while Heath Pearce partnered the unsteady Markus Holgersson in the middle. Thierry Henry, who spends much of his time dropping deep, led the front line supported by former Everton midfielder Tim Cahill.
The Red Bulls contain more firepower than this. Kenny Cooper remains the league’s third-highest scorer despite his diminishing minutes since Sebastien Le Toux’s arrival from Vancouver Whitecaps. Le Toux has quickly descended to the substitutes’ bench via the right-midfield spot that’s troubled Backe since he traded Dane Richards to Vancouver for the Frenchman.
There are no such issues with Peter Vermes’ well-oiled Kansas City machine. Sporting lined up in the familiar 4-3-3 formation that’s served them so well over the past 18 months. Kamara operated on the left in last month’s meeting to exploit his aerial strength against 5-foot-7-inch right-back Connor Lade. He began on the right this time with Graham Zusi opposite.
Sporting Punish Red Bulls’ Slackness
It didn’t take long for Sporting’s wide forwards to penetrate the danger zone at the top of New York’s penalty area. Zusi cut inside after five minutes and switched the play to Chance Myers midway inside the Red Bulls’ half. The marauding full-back’s support allowed Kamara to drift inside untracked. The Sierra Leone international gathered possession, took a couple of touches, and fired a low drive wide of Gaudette’s near post.
Sporting took the lead on 11 minutes after Marquez cheaply turned the ball over to Roger Espinoza in New York’s defensive third. The Honduran fed Zusi at the top of the box and Tainio gave away a free kick as he attempted to make a recovering challenge. Zusi’s 25-yard strike thumped against the crossbar and Matt Besler guided the rebound into Sapong’s feet as New York’s statuesque defenders failed to react. Sapong swiveled to fire an excellent shot into Gaudette’s bottom-right corner.
Kamara doubled the lead on 19 minutes with as easy a goal as he’ll ever score from a set piece. The 6-foot-3-inch forward made a simple near-post run and nodded Zusi’s inswinging corner past an exposed Gaudette from six yards. Conde failed miserably with his marking assignment, allowing Kamara to run unchecked, while the rest of the Red Bulls’ defense remained unmoved.
Red Bulls Fail To Enter Red Zone
Sporting’s high defensive line kept the Red Bulls away from working the ball into threatening positions. Full-backs Myers and Seth Sinovic squeezed up to shackle Joel Lindpere and the uncomfortable McCarty, while Marquez and Tainio lacked the guile to allow New York to play through the midfield. The result was a series of aimless long balls from back to front for an isolated Henry. Chad Marshall’s error in Saturday’s game against Columbus Crew allowed Marquez to float one ball through for Henry to score. A similar slip didn’t look likely from Besler and Aurelien Collin.
Lindpere had a minor success in freeing Conde down the left on 21 minutes. New York were being kept so far from Jimmy Nielsen’s goal that Cahill met the Colombian defender’s cross at the 18-yard line. His powerful header flew harmlessly wide of target.
New York’s best chance of the half came a minute later when Sporting gifted an opening. Marquez forced a turnover by Julio Cesar 30 yards from goal after Nielsen’s risky pass to the Brazilian midfielder. The Mexican drove into the penalty box before cutting a reverse pass left to Henry after feinting to shoot. The ball arrived slightly too far in front of the Red Bulls’ captain, forcing him to fire wide as Nielsen scrambled across to repair the damage.
Kansas City remained the most likely to create the next goal. Espinoza stripped the ball from Marquez on 27 minutes and slipped a diagonal pass into the path of Sapong’s left-to-right run. The 23-year-old couldn’t steer his shot on goal as the angle narrowed.
Zusi entered the penalty box on 32 minutes after a neat one-two with Kamara. Sapong recycled the ball to Espinoza at the edge of the area after receiving Zusi’s cutback with his back to goal and Sporting switched the attack to Myers on the right side. He squared it inside to Kamara, who jinked around a flat-footed Pearce before seeing his shot blocked on the six-yard line by Holgersson’s desperate lunge.
Henry almost shot wide of the penalty box on a half-chance from Lindpere’s layoff on 41 minutes. The Frenchman whiffed on Cahill’s knockdown one minute later, and the Australian designated player sent another 18-yard header from Conde’s delivery harmlessly wide as the first half petered out.
Sporting Content To Pick Their Moments On The Break
Henry’s petulance surfaced early in the second half when he planted the ball on Nielsen’s six-yard line and demonstrably counted the seconds that it took Sporting’s goalkeeper to launch a goal kick. The captain’s unsporting actions at least brought the 10,286 crowd to life.
The fans’ noise lifted again in the form of jeers on 56 minutes when Cooper, who’d replaced McCarty at half-time, sclaffed an attempted lob along the ground to Nielsen’s hands.
Referee David Gantar rejected two penalty claims that could have sent Sporting over the horizon. A couple of Marquez giveaways in quick succession on 57 minutes allowed Kamara to release Sapong on the right wing. Zusi was unable to take Sapong’s early cross in his stride as he sprinted into the box, but he was bundled over by the chasing Lade as he turned to retrieve the ball.
Sapong appeared certain to have earned a spot kick nine minutes later after he waltzed past the ailing Marquez into a one-on-one with Gaudette. Sapong was clearly felled as he side-stepped the Puerto Rican stopper. Gantar somehow awarded a corner kick.
Henry forced Nielsen into his first save of the game – a routine one – between those two incidents. Lloyd Sam’s introduction on 69 minutes finally injected some zest into New York’s offense. Strangely it was Lindpere who made way for the Englishman rather than one of Backe’s two feckless central midfielders.
Sam’s scampering brought the Red Bulls to the top of Sporting’s penalty area on 73 minutes. The former Leeds United winger stepped inside Sinovic and found Cooper crossing the 18-yard line. Collin showed the big striker to his right before making a vital block. Sam tested Nielsen five minutes later with a low shot after good work in the box by Henry and third substitute Le Toux.
By now, Sporting were content to pick their moments on the counter. A third goal seemed there for the taking if they struck out at pace. Instead, Vermes’ men seemed content to run the clock down with their occasional attacking forays. Still, Gaudette was fortunate when Kamara tried to place his header from Espinoza’s delivery back across goal, allowing the goalkeeper to make a save when a header toward the open near post would surely have resulted in a third goal.
Kamara blazed high and wide from Sapong’s pass on 85 minutes, and Gaudette pulled off a stunning save low at his left post to deny Zusi after Sporting worked a 3-vs-2 breakaway.
Henry Leaves Sour Aftertaste
All that remained was for Henry to further sully his reputation with another bizarre collision with a Sporting player. Last year it was Espinoza’s head that felt the brunt of the Frenchman’s stooping knee in an incident that the sullen striker tried to pass off as accidental.
This time it was the impressive Kamara who suffered the impact from Henry’s headbutt in a crowded penalty area. The officials were watching Zusi departing the field to be replaced by Oriol Rosell when the former Arsenal man started a sprint that carried him into inexplicable contact with an opponent that was clearly in his line of sight.
Stranger still is that Le Toux had moved away from the corner flag, where he was set to deliver a set piece, as Sporting made their final substitution.
Aug. 30, 2012 — Crude Awakening For D.C. As Red Bulls Snatch Point
Aug. 28, 2012 — Red Bulls Frustrate Sporting In Tie, Almost Grab Win
Aug. 13, 2012 — Sporting On Song Against D.C. To Reclaim East’s Top Spot
Aug. 8, 2012 — Backe, Red Bulls Chance For Redemption Against Houston
July 18, 2012 — Henry’s Searing Volley Scorches The Fire