When New York played Los Angeles on Aug. 14, they dropped a 1-0 decision in front of a sold-out Red Bull Arena. The upstart Red Bulls wanted to make a statement against the league's other glamour side, but instead showed that, despite their flashy signings, they still had work left to do.
Fast-forward a month and the statement was finally made.
Friday night, on the road, the Red Bulls proved that they can, indeed, play with the best teams in the league by defeating league-leading Galaxy 2-0. No longer are New York pretenders; rather, they placed themselves squarely as MLS Cup contenders.
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“When the MLS season started, Los Angeles were one of those teams that started strong and they’ve been on top all season,” midfielder Dane Richards told MLSsoccer.com. “For us to come in here, get a clean sheet and win by two goals, yeah, I think it’s a statement game.”
Richards’ 36th-minute goal – a tap-in after Joel Lindpere’s shot caromed off the post – provided all the difference. On the hour mark, Juan Pablo Angel added a second goal via penalty kick after Richards was fouled in the box to give the Red Bulls an insurmountable lead.
Though “Great Dane” was clearly a difference-maker on Friday night, he instead deflected the attention of another scintillating performance towards his teammates.
“The first goal came by hard work, not just by me, but by the team,” Richards said. “It was important for us to get the goal … before the end of the half.”
The Red Bulls managed the result even amidst some distractions.
Last week, head coach Hans Backe shook up the starting lineup by placing Ángel, a Designated Player and the face of the francise, on the bench and inserting recently-acquired midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy in the starting 11.
Without start striker Thierry Henry for the match against LA, Backe placed Ángel back in the starting lineup alongside Ballouchy up top.
With pose and precision on the ball, the Red Bulls attacking midfielder helped his team take control of the match, a quality they lacked when the Galaxy defeated them last time out.
“Man of the Match – absolutely outstanding,” said Backe about Ballouchy’s play. “I’m surprised that he is that good. He is all over the pitch. His passing game, he is so composed on the ball, wants the ball all of the time, gets our game going, set up strikers and wide players.”
So far in 2010, despite being near the top of the standings, the Red Bulls were 0-4 against the other top three teams in the league going into Friday's match. In their 12 wins prior to beating LA, New York had done a good job of winning the games they were supposed to win but hadn’t beaten an elite team yet this season.
But all that’s changed now. With the win, New York pulled into a first-place tie in the Eastern Conference with Columbus, who have a game in hand and play on Saturday night.
The win gives New York some more momentum heading into the postseason. In fact, if the playoffs were to start today, the Red Bulls would be a combined 4-6-2 against the league’s eight postseason-bound teams.
“I think that, heading into the playoffs, this is what we needed,” Richards said. “We know in the playoffs we’re going to have to play on the road and win, and that’s what we did tonight.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012.