WASHINGTON — The New York Red Bulls are making all kinds of memories this season, from winning the Supporters Shield to their first playoff win at RFK Stadium. They secured the latter on Sunday, dominating D.C. United, 1-0, in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The win put the Red Bulls in good position to claim the series next week in New Jersey.
The only negative for New York was a second-half injury to defender Damien Perrinelle, who landed awkwardly after contesting a head ball and appeared to be in serious pain as he clutched at his knee.
Otherwise, it was a banner afternoon for the MLS Cup favorites.
Here are three thoughts from Sunday’s game, which was played before 19,525 fans in the nation’s capital.
Dax enjoys his return to D.C.
The Red Bulls skipper never got comfortable in Washington. A member of United for only half a season, he was played out of position and given the captain’s armband before he was ready, then traded to New York in exchange for Dwayne De Rosario in the summer of 2011.
It’s not hard to imagine that the 28-year-old, who’s had a Best XI-caliber season for the Red Bulls (19-10-6), takes great pleasure out of beating his old club. His passes were on point on Sunday and in the 72nd minute, he was responsible for a dagger of a goal. Sacha Kljestan bent a free kick toward the left post, McCarty raced in unmarked and headed the ball past D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
It was a big moment for a player in his prime—one who’s performing well enough to get a national team look. And it was a huge moment for his team.
An ideal scenario for the Red Bulls
New York had never won a playoff game in D.C. (0-4-2 going in). And considering how good the Red Bulls are at home, they didn’t have to win on Sunday. A draw, or even a narrow defeat, would have set them up well for next week’s decider.
But the Red Bulls made themselves at home on Sunday as 700 traveling fans sang jumped and shook the upper deck. They stifled D.C. (16-14-6) and secured a win that gives United a mountain to climb next week in Harrison, N.J.
New York finished 12-3-2 on home soil this season and has failed to win only one league game at Red Bull Arena since the end of June. It dismantled visiting United twice—by a 2-0 margin in March and then 3-0 in August. Meanwhile, D.C.’s only road win since the beginning of July was a bizarre 1-0 decision in Montreal, where United was outshot 25-1.
New York coach Jesse Marsch knew heading into the opener that close was good enough.
“For us, being on the road, we just have to make sure we keep it close,” he told reporters this week. “We keep it tight, so that when we come back here we really give ourselves (an opportunity) to go after it.”
D.C. will benefit from a week of rest (it had to play last Wednesday in the knockout round), and the return of captain Bobby Boswell, who was suspended Sunday. It will be buoyed by the memory of 2012, when it went into RBA and eliminated the hosts in a decisive second leg. But this is a much more balanced New York squad—one that seems to be made of stiffer stuff than predecessors that folded in the past.
The hosts needed a win on Sunday. They didn’t get it.
Hamid was United’s man of the match once again. It’s an indication of both his talent and the inability of the team in front of him to exert control over the game. Coach Ben Olsen summed up this week: “Some teams have Giovincos. We’ve got a Bill.”
The proactive, fluid play D.C. enjoyed against the New England Revolution—not Giovinco good, but United good—was absent four days later. On Sunday, Fabián Espíndola frequently drifted wide in an effort to find space, and Chris Rolfe was pushed back into midfield thanks to the absence of Chris Pontius and the entry of Álvaro Saborío. With D.C.’s most skillful ball handlers on the move, New York’s five-man midfield took control, clogging passing lanes, forcing turnovers and limiting United’s rhythm.
D.C. had no shots on goal. It's first-half pass completion percentage rate of 59.1% was the second-worst in any MLS game this season, according to Opta. And in the second half, it was even worse. D.C. finished the game at 55%. United came out with considerable energy and created a chance here and there thanks to a cross or set piece. Saborío hit a sixth-minute header over the crossbar and Perry Kitchen had a decent look in the 27th. But threatening forays were few and far between, leaving Hamid to keep his team in the game.
He stoned Mike Grella in the 33rd, stopping the close-range shot with his head, then denied Grella again in the 58th with a spectacular diving parry. He was D.C.’s best player on a day it needed more from the men up front.