By Chris Ballard
New York leaped to the top of the Eastern Conference Saturday evening after securing their third successive victory, despite being put under intense pressure for much of the second half.
The Red Bulls lined up with the same side as had started the previous two games, while Sporting Kansas City made four changes from last weekâ€™s defeat in New England: Back-from-suspension Julio Cesar replaced Matt Besler in central defense, and joining him in the starting XI were Graham Zusi, Stephane Auvray, and Korede Aiyegbusi, replacing Roger Espinoza, Milos Stojcev and Birahim Diop â€“ Diop was suspended following the red card originally shown to Aurelien Collin was transferred to him after review in midweek.
A crowd of 20,636 saw the quintessential â€œgame of two halves.â€ For the first 45 minutes, New York were dominant; scoring one and forcing KC keeper Jimmy Nielsen into a string of fine saves. In the second half, however, it was KC who drove the game, retaining possession well and seeking to build out from the back.
The first real chance of the match arrived from the penalty spot. Henry found de Rosario inside the area, and there was a slight tug of the arm from Stephane Auvray; de Rosario went down, and the referee pointed to the spot. With Thierry Henry having already missed a penalty this season (against Seattle in Game 1), Rafa Marquez took the responsibility upon himself. For such a sweet striker of the dead ball, Marquezâ€™ penalty kick was poor; a stutter-step in the run up did not fool Nielsen, and he dove well to his left to save and then smother the rebound. The breakthrough was not long in coming, however. A free kick was awarded in midfield, and Marquez thought quickly to find Henry with his back to goal. One touch from Henry released de Rosario wide on the right. The Canadianâ€™s cross into the area reached an unchallenged Luke Rodgers, and it was a relatively simple task to convert the change to make it 1-0. Later on Henry said that he had been looking for Teemu Tainio to pass him the ball, but that it was Marquez who was on a similar wavelength â€“ â€œI knew D-Ro was there so thatâ€™s why I wanted the ball earlyâ€¦.D-Ro passed it to Luke and Luke did what he does best.â€
Ten minutes later the Englishman was shown a yellow card after a shot from Miller briefly escaped the grasp of Nielsen, only for him to take it at the second attempt. By this time Rodgers had arrived looking to make the most of the potential mistake, and he appeared to catch Nielsen with his trailing foot after jumping over the prone keeper, who immediately clutched his face. The Red Bulls fans clearly felt that Neilsen was feigning injury â€“ he was roundly booed for the rest of the night â€“ but later replays showed that Rodgers had indeed clipped him. After the game, Rodgers said â€œThe keeper spilled the ball, Iâ€™ve had to go for the ball. I didnâ€™t mean to hurt himâ€¦if the same opportunity came up again, Iâ€™d do exactly the same thing.â€œ
Nielsen was involved again before the half came to close; A Dwayne de Rosario shot from 25 yards out was curling into the bottom right hand corner until the keeper intervened to send the effort around the post, and Henry also had a shot saved by the in-form â€˜keeper.
At the start of the second half, Rodgers and Teemu Tainio were both withdrawn with injuries; on in their stead came Juan Agudelo and Carl Robinson. Kansas City coach Peter Vermes sent on Ryan Smith in place of C.J. Sapong, and in this 45 minute cameo, Smith did very well, acting as the catalyst for most of Sportingâ€™s best moves. Although the second half was contested mostly in the NY half, clear-cut chances for the away side were limited; Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said later that â€œWe only allowed them to have perhaps one or two chancesâ€œ.
The most notable attack from the home team came in stoppage time, when substitute Mehdi Ballouchy was booked for diving in the penalty area after he had been slipped through by Henry.
In the post-match press conference, Backe said â€œWe should have killed the game, definitely . . . but in the second half, we looked fatigued, I donâ€™t know why,â€ although he was keen to take positives from the fact that the team kept another clean sheet: â€œThe good sign is that when youâ€™re under pressure, you can defend the way we did.â€ Captain Thierry Henry agreed: â€œI thought we could have been 2 or 3-0 up at half time . . . At the end of the day we didnâ€™t concede a goal again and we won.â€
Next weekend New York travel to California for the â€˜glamourâ€™ match against L.A. Galaxy, who are also the hosts for Sporting KCâ€™s next game in two weeksâ€™ time. The two sides are at opposite ends of the Eastern Conference; New York are top with 14 points from 7 games, and Kansas City are bottom with just 4 points from 6 games.