The New York Red Bulls survived a scare from D.C. United, lost 2-1 on the day, but advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals on Saturday. The fact that they did so with a very un-Red Bulls-like, workmanlike performance was easily the most surprising part of the afternoon’s events.
Protecting a 2-0 series lead, it was obvious the Red Bulls would look to play on the “safer” side of things at RFK Stadium on Saturday. Most onlookers would have expected United to make more of their massive possession advantage — 69 percent, to 31 — early on, rather than leaving their season’s fate hanging so late.
First and foremost, they missed joint-leading goalscorer Luis Silva once again. With plenty of numbers back defensively, RBNY were able to track the more predictable runners and close down passing lanes with great effect leading up to Nick DeLeon‘s opening goal. Fabian Espindola shouldered a great deal of the chance-creating responsibility all afternoon and started DCU’s move for the opener.
Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander continue to be absolute bosses for RBNY. As Matthew Doyle pointed out before the game on MLSsoccer.com (stats updated to reflect Saturday’s result):
In the  games (including [three] playoff games) these two guys have played together in central midfield, New York have scored  goals and allowed .
In the other 26 games this season, they’ve scored 39 and allowed 40.
Espindola had success dropping deep, but only in hitting long diagonal balls to the wings, rather than finding runners up the middle — because of McCarty and Alexander. Once those diagonal balls reached their targets on the win, Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius were quickly closed down and forced to play the ball backwards or sideways — by, you guessed it, a hustling McCarty and Alexander.
Without the yeoman’s defensive work of McCarty and Alexander, DCU find themselves with much more dangerous opportunities in and around the 18-yard-box. Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips get most of the credit for RBNY — fairly so — but without these two at the based of the midfield, their contributions get wiped away the next down down the field.
Henry, as he said himself after the game, agrees.
“First of all, I don’t think I was Man of the Match, but thank you.” Only Henry can convince us he wasn’t all that great when he was the one who was the architect of the series’s decisive moment.
As for his overall performance, DCU did a fine enough job limiting the 37-year-old’s attacking contributions for 89 of the game’s 90 minutes. Problem is, he’s still Thierry Henry in that one unaccounted for minute. Sean Franklin probably only had to defend Henry one-v-one on one occasion Saturday, and in that one battle Henry created himself two full yards of space to deliver a cross. And in that situation, it’s game over, Henry wins.
There’s just not much to say when your gameplan works perfectly for 99 percent of the game, and a player whose ability transcends our ability to understand greatness still finds a way to beat you.