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Red Bulls underperform in win, while the playoff race remains packed

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Jonny Steele (left) and the Red Bulls scored a lackluster victory over D.C. United on Saturday.

New York secured an anticipated win despite an unexpected omission as the race for first place in the Eastern Conference grew even tighter. Over in the West, Seattle and Los Angeles staked their claims with important victories.

Game of the day

New York Red Bulls 2, D.C. United 1

Bust-up? Who, us? It was "very normal stuff, nothing to report," Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke told media on Friday after BigAppleSoccer.com reported that Petke and Thierry Henry were involved in an on-field altercation during training on Thursday.

But there was something decidedly abnormal to report on Saturday: Henry was on the bench. When he's fit, that just doesn't happen. In 86 regular-season appearances for New York, the striker has started 82 times.

Petke may be a first-year head coach who, at 37, is only a year older than Henry, but he was a combative player and is obviously a bold manager, too. This was strong leadership from a club that seemed to be lacking it under Petke's affable predecessor, Hans Backe, a man more likely to massage egos than bruise them.

Henry dropped, Bradley Wright-Phillips in: that's quite a statement to send to a player of the Frenchman's pedigree and influence. Signed in July, this was the 28-year-old's first MLS start. He was most recently on loan from Charlton Athletic at Brentford, in the English third division.

Wright-Phillips' father, the prolific former striker, Ian Wright, left Arsenal in 1998 -- only a year before Henry joined the club and went on to become one of the greatest forwards in English Premier League history. It's enough to make even a legend feel old.

"It's much ado about nothing," Petke said afterwards, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. "I'm a coach and I make decisions every day, and I made my decision and that's between me and the team. He's a fiery personality, I'm a fiery personality. We get together sometimes it's like a tornado meeting a volcano. As far as what exactly it was about, that's a team-related thing."

Henry's partner, Fabian Espindola, was also left out of the starting XI as Petke responded to the alarming 3-2 defeat to Chivas USA six days earlier.

While Petke is right that rows among co-workers are routine in soccer, the headlines added to the perception of a club under stress. Credibility from landmark wins over Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City was promptly undermined by defeats to the Columbus Crew and Chivas and a goalless draw with the Philadelphia Union.

The familiar inconsistency that had seemed in remission was suddenly back, and the Red Bulls were resembling their 2012 selves: capable of everything and nothing. While the playoffs are a different species than the regular season, a team that toils on the road and can't be trusted to produce back-to-back wins during the long summer slog is not likely to survive through to the MLS Cup.

If a coach is going to experiment and take risks with his lineup, at home to the worst side in MLS is the ideal time. The lively Lloyd Sam's possibly mis-hit chip gave New York an early lead, but the defending was not impressive. Even against United's anemic attack the Red Bulls sorely missed the injured Jamison Olave, who came on as a late substitute.

A sharp D.C. move set up Lewis Neal inside the box after 26 minutes but he put his shot tamely wide. The visitors were level eight minutes later when the Red Bulls' left back, David Carney, failed to track Nick DeLeon, who finished with flair. In a statistic that sums up United's decline since its playoff win over New York last fall, it was the 2012 Rookie of the Year runner-up's first MLS goal of the season. He had eight last year.

What happened next also shined a spotlight on the futility of D.C. in 2013: the Red Bulls reclaimed the advantage almost immediately. Playing in a more advanced role than usual, Tim Cahill out-jumped Daniel Woolard and headed in a superb cross from Jonny Steele. Without Henry, New York looked more direct than usual, focused on driving at its opponent's soft core.

A hungry-looking Henry arrived in the 58th minute as a substitute for Cahill, who came off with an injury on the night that his son sang the national anthem at Red Bull Arena.

Within three minutes, the striker ran at a reeling Dejan Jakovic in classic Henry fashion, opening his body on the edge of the area to create the angle for a low diagonal shot. It went wide. Later on, another Henry effort was blocked.

The victory puts New York in a three-way tie at the top of the Eastern Conference with the Montreal Impact and Kansas City. While the result was an improvement on recent weeks, the performance was again ragged. A more efficient and confident team than D.C. would have punished Petke's side, who played the final stages with ten men after Ibrahim Sekagya was sent off for clumsily felling Dwayne De Rosario inside the box after 73 minutes.

Lethal from long distance a week earlier when he scored a terrific goal against Toronto FC, the veteran failed from twelve yards here. His penalty kick was well-saved by Luis Robles.

It was an entertaining, lively night -- but for teams with serious championship pretensions, home matches against D.C. ought to be automatic, not dramatic.

Player of the day

Fabinho, Philadelphia Union

With that nickname, the 28-year-old could only be Brazilian. And his style is true to that country's attacking tradition: he is a left back who likes to get forward.

According to league statistics Fabinho, whose full name is Fabio Alves, made 40 passes during Saturday's goalless draw with Montreal at PPL Park -- a high number for an outside back and second on the team only to Jeff Parke. Fabinho's enterprise down the left was a big reason why the Union tried 27 crosses, compared with the Impact's meager four.

He was also effective in defense, as a Montreal team that is the East's top-scoring squad and put five goals past the Houston Dynamo last week mustered only four shots, one on target.

Signed as a free agent in June and now a teammate of the Brazilian World Cup-winning midfielder, Kleberson, Fabinho previously spent time in the Australian league. An ankle sprain suffered by Ray Gaddis on August 3 gave Fabinho the opportunity to grab playing time, and he has seized the moment and started the past four MLS matches.

He should have provided his third Union assist in the 77th minute, but his perfect cross was flubbed by the struggling Jack McInerney, who put his header wide from five yards.

Houston visits Chicago on Sunday afternoon for another notable fixture in the crowded chase for the Eastern Conference playoff places.

Stat of the day

15 - Teams with realistic postseason hopes

A debate about the rights and wrongs of the MLS playoff system could last from now until December 7 (the date of MLS Cup). But there's no doubt that it keeps the season alive for clubs whose campaigns would otherwise have flatlined long before summer segues into fall.

Pedants and Ohioan optimists would say otherwise, but Columbus' playoff prospects are almost assuredly over after its 1-0 home defeat to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. The outcome leaves Robert Warzycha's side eight points adrift of the top five in the East with eight fixtures to go.

That is not an insurmountable gap, but the team's results have been poor since key midfielder Eddie Gaven suffered a season-ending injury in May. It is unrealistic to expect a late upturn from a side that has won only four of its past 15 MLS matches.

Factor in the no-hope trio of Toronto, D.C. and Chivas, and that is only four teams in the league whose players can start planning their winter vacations.

Last year's Supporters Shield winners are on the endangered list thanks to Saturday's 3-0 defeat to the Los Angeles Galaxy. The San Jose Earthquakes have perked up in the past six weeks, yet were easily dispatched by the rampant Galaxy at the StubHub Center and are five points behind fifth place in the Western Conference with only seven fixtures left.

As we enter September and the final two months of the regular campaign, the scene is clouded by the varied number of games the teams have completed, especially in the West.

Thanks to Friday's 4-2 win over the Portland Timbers, RSL leads with 48 points from 28 games. Then comes the Galaxy, with Seattle a distant third with 40 points. But the Sounders have played only 24 games, fewest in the conference. They are MLS' most in-form team and the top spot is still within their grasp.

Goal of the day

Benny Feilhaber, Sporting Kansas City

The 28-year-old playmaker's offseason move from the New England Revolution did not immediately revitalize his stuttering career. SKC's midfield had struggled to click and Feilhaber looked near-irrelevant in a lineup built around Graham Zusi. He lost his place as a regular starter in June. Then he scored a superb goal against the Chicago Fire on July 7 and seemed to regain the trust of Peter Vermes, the head coach.

Feilhaber has started SKC's past five matches and his goal in Saturday's 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids exemplified his considerable talent: lashing in a bouncing ball with the outside of his right boot from far outside the penalty box.

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