HARRISON, N.J. – Without Rafa Márquez, the Red Bulls defense took it to another level on Saturday night in a 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers, to claim sole possession of the tenth and final playoff spot.
Márquez, who was suspended by the club following his midweek comments that criticized his teammates' effort in Wednesday night's 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, watched the NYRB back line keep a clean sheet from a luxury suite above the Red Bull Arena field. It was a gutsy effort from the New York back four, who took few risks and had no shame in gutting out a win.
It may not have been the most beautiful soccer from New York but just like a week before in a 1-0 win at FC Dallas, it was effective.
The clean sheet and the dominating win – the Timbers had just three shots on goal in the game – was a team defensive effort from the Red Bulls who answered all their critics, even those in their own locker room, with the shutout.
“Honestly, I think it would have happened even if the comments weren’t made," said central defender Tim Ream, who was a target of Márquez's remarks. "After you take a solid 3-1 beating, you have something to prove. We wanted to prove it was a fluke and that wasn’t who we are. We put our heads down more because of the way we played [on Wednesday], not because of the comments.”
This was the Red Bulls' ninth clean sheet of the season but just their third since July 16. Without Márquez and Chris Albright, who suffered a calf strain on Wednesday night and could be out four to six weeks, the Red Bulls limited Portland to a handful of chances in the final third.
“Just defending first and foremost, kind of like [we] had it in Dallas,” said defender Stephen Keel, who replaced Márquez in the lineup. “Cynical defending is what they want to call it but it's keeping everything in front of us, keeping everything tight and keeping a clean sheet.”
Keel put in a dominating performance in what was just his 12th game and ninth start of the season. A bit of a journeyman, Keel won all his battles against the Timbers' frontline with sound positioning and good, solid decision-making. His play meant that the Red Bulls hardly missed Márquez, their designated player and the captain of the Mexican national team.
“You need that kind of central defender in the MLS, a center back who is a kind of a cleaner, battles all the time, go for headers and not give the striker too much time to control the ball" Red Bulls manager Hans Backe said.
Instead of letting the distractions get the best of them, the Red Bulls put the Real Salt Lake loss and the Márquez suspension behind them to get a valuable win in their race for the playoffs. It was never going to be an issue for this side, Ream said, painting the issue as more of a media frenzy then anything disruptive in the locker room.
“It [Márquez controversy] was all encompassing for you guys. When it happened, we had a meeting right away and it was past us,” Ream said. “Pretty simple – just put it behind us and focused in training yesterday and really came out tonight and put our heads down and went after it.”Follow@KristianRDyer