When Columbus tied Toronto FC earlier on Saturday afternoon, the Red Bulls knew that all they needed was a win against Philadelphia to lock down the Eastern Conference title. However, instead of coming out with wings, the Red Bulls looked flat and gave up two first-half goals en route to a 2-1 road loss to the Union.
With the result, the Red Bulls now hold a tenuous one-point lead on first place in the conference in the battle for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with just Thursday’s match remaining on their regular-season schedule.
The Red Bulls had no offensive flow and no rhythm at all to their attack in the opening 45 minutes, failing to register a shot on goal during the first half. New York’s offense had struggled coming into the match, having scored just once – and that against the run of play – in their last two outings.
Even with the return of Dane Richards on the right wing following international duty, the Red Bulls were unable to exploit a player who had scored four goals in his past five games heading into Saturday’s match at PPL Park.
“We were kind of playing in Philadelphia’s end too much,” assistant coach Richie Williams told MLSsoccer.com. “We weren’t dangerous at all. Our passing was short passing, it was all safe. We never put them under pressure much.”
The 4-4-1-1 formation employed by head coach Hans Backe with some effect in September had little jolt against Philadelphia. Mehdi Ballouchy, who played the free-roaming role behind striker Juan Pablo Angel in the first half, failed to make an impact.
When the Moroccan playmaker dropped deep into the midfield to retrieve the ball, Ballouchy would leave Ángel alone up top and stranded without a strike partner. And when he stayed up top, the midfield seemingly lacked someone who had composure on the ball in the face of strong, high pressure from the Union.
It wasn’t until the halftime insertion of forward Salou Ibrahim that the Red Bulls became a threat in attack. With Ballouchy dropping into the midfield, Ángel had a partner to play off and the Ghana-born Belgian's presence took away some of the pressure. Williams credits the 4-4-2 alignment with a better, more dynamic flow to the game.
New York began to register shots on goal and good scoring chances, including a late-match chance on a corner kick as Juan Agudelo’s header was cleared off the line.
“We were able to play more direct in the second half,” Williams said. “I think [Ibrahim] played well. He held the ball well; he was a big physical presence. Even when he didn’t have the ball he occupied their center backs.”
With a win on Thursday night against New England, the Red Bulls would clinch their first Eastern Conference title since 2000.
“No game is easy in this league but we play at home now,” Williams said. “We’re confident we can go out there and win the Eastern Conference in this our last game.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012