HARRISON, N.J. – A season that started with talk of the Supporters’ Shield and regular season domination ended with the Red Bulls getting three points from a must-win regular season finale to squeeze into the playoffs.
But despite a rocky middle part of the season in which the Red Bulls – who tied Chicago for the league lead in ties with 16 – gave away points either by going down early or conceding soft goals, New York’s 1-0 win on Thursday night over the Philadelphia Union showed a team hitting their stride as the postseason approaches.
It couldn't come at a better moment.
“Now is the perfect time to find form, make a run at the MLS Cup and take one game at a time, get results on the road,” said midfielder Dane Richards, whose header off the post caused the own goal that gave New York the win. “Just be consistent.”
Head coach Hans Backe sees the team playing as well as they did during the first seven games of the season, when the Red Bulls roared to the top of the Eastern Conference and the thought of needing a result in the final match of the regular season seemed absurd.
Backe certainly didn’t envision a must-win match in the making six months ago, when his team seemed like a postseason lock.
“Not after the first seven games in the league where we played really, really well,” Backe said. “[We] only had conceded two goals, looked very, very solid. We had the break for the Gold Cup and lost six players, and after that, we’ve been more or less struggling to find our rhythm. But the last six games, we’ve looked much better.”
It is that form over the past month that has sparked a Red Bulls resurgence.
In their last 10 games – including Thursday’s win over the Union, a tough 1-0 road victory at FC Dallas, and a 2-0 knockout of league-leading LA Galaxy – New York are 4-2-4. Those results have renewed the team’s confidence, and the sink-or-swim games have given the Red Bulls plenty of motivation.
“Honestly our guys are thinking about peaking at the right time,” said defender Tim Ream. “Guys are taking it one game at a time. There’s definitely a different feeling than last year; we’re kind of looked down upon this year.
“I think it’s good for us to come in in do-or-die situations, we seem to respond pretty well. Hopefully we can take it into the next game.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer