All looked lost for the New York Red Bulls on Sunday night. The Portland Timbers—worst team in the West, the only MLS side who had not yet won on the road—were up by two goals just 32 minutes into the match. New York's battle for the Supporter's Shield and undefeated home record seemed ready to crumble. But crumble they did not: the Red Bulls battled back with three unanswered goals for a wild 3-2 victory.
Tensions were high even before kickoff, as the South Ward unveiled their latest tifo display. With a Gangs of New York reference ("BURN 'EM - SEE IF THEIR ASHES TURN GREEN...") featuring two Doug Flags with painted on fire. Because soccer is serious business in the Pacific Northwest (even Portlandia's gotten in on the act) the sight of fire anywhere near what has become the "Cascadian flag" did not go unnoticed. One Seattle supporter tweeted"Whoa now. NYRB supporters just declared tifo-war on all of Cascadia." Let us pray there will be no casualties.
Onto the actual soccer! The opening of the game was almost all Timbers. Portland's speed and passing ripped apart RBNY's back line, with Sal Zizzo frequently menacing on the right wing. It only took seven minutes for him to create a good chance, burning Roy Miller and slotting a cross to wide open rookie Bright Dike for an easy shot. Zizzo would create Portland's second goal as well, springing Darlington Nagbe in the box who who put a slow rolling shot into the far corner.
With the game falling away rapidly, Hans Backe made a move he later claimed to have not done in 20 years of coaching: a substitution inside 30 minutes. Roy Miller came out and three players shifted positions to bring Kenny Cooper into the game. The forward didn't need much time to pull one back against his former club, rising to put in a header shortly before the half to get RBNY back into the game.
Before the halftime whistle, the game took a turn for the bizarre. With New York continuing to attack, Dax McCarty blasted a shot towards the box - which took a deflection off what looked like the arm of a Portland player. The ball rebounded to Tim Cahill, who curled it into the net just as referee Jason Anno blew his whistle and began to run toward the spot. But with the ball rippling in the net, Anno pointed back to the center circle and signaled that the goal would count. Portland protested heavily, but the goal stood - Cahill's first since joining MLS - and the game went into halftime tied.
The second half was more even, with both sides attacking back and forth. Portland's speed again lead to multiple breakaways, but goalkeeper Bill Gaudette came up with three huge saves to keep New York's hopes alive. (His efforts would earn him Man Of The Match honors and much gushing from his teammates.) With ten minutes to go, it was Heath Pearce who rose to put a head to a Jan Gunnar Solli cross, finding the net in front of the South Ward for the game-winner.
The win marks the first time since September 11, 2004 that New York's team battled back from a two goal deficit for a victory. The Red Bulls (13-7-5, 44 points) are keeping pace with Sporting Kansas City, needing just two points to take control of the East again. They also tightened the race for the Supporters' Shield, a mere three points back from league leaders San Jose (who lost to Montreal this weekend). New York will travel next Sunday to (finally!) play their first of three games against Sporting Kansas City, in a series that will play a huge role in determining the final table for 2012.
Coach Hans Backe, on Portland presenting a challenge: "I think this is what this league is all about. Whoever you play, even if you meet teams when you have two games to play after 32 games, and they are 25 points behind, they cause you trouble. I've seen it for almost three years now. We talked about it before the game, we just need to come out with the same energy [as] against Houston. We have set the standard against Houston, and that's the way we have to play. Okay, they sat back, and they were close to take advantage of the breaks. We can say we made too many mistakes in our attacking game to give them these options."
Jan Gunnar Solli, on his two assists: "The first is a really good timed movement. I get the ball from Le Toux in a deep run, and I see a white guy - I don't see that it's Kenny, but it has to be him, you know...The second one is also a very good timed run from Heath in the box, and I just whip it in and there it was."
Bill Gaudette, on his three huge saves: "You know, they were just saves. That's what your job is, to keep the team in the game. It wasn't our best performance - I keep reiterating that. Any time you come out and you play like that, where we weren't really top notch and you get three points, it's a pretty good night. It's one of those where we're definitely going to look back and try to correct some things. We all know we didn't play our best ball and we have to get back to work this week."
Tim Cahill, on what he saw and heard on his goal: "The ball dropped, I volleyed it, it hit the back of the net. It was a goal, for my team. I was happy we were able to go back on level terms."
Tim Cahill, on the officiating: "In fairness to the ref, he had a difficult game, and I thought he did exceptionally well with the whole 95 minutes. In football, people want the game to be played on and the game to be played in the right way, and I thought he did a great job."
Heath Pearce, on expectations of their opponents: "We expect a tough match from everybody. They came out and played a tough match. They had a game plan and they stuck with it. They countered well against us, and we didn't respond to that well in the beginning. Fortunately we're a resilient team and bounced back after a couple goals down. We went into halftime somewhat - well actually, extremely happy that we were tied, and thought that we were able to control the game in the second half. And able to score a third goal and get a win."
Kenny Cooper, on facing his former team: "It's great to get a win. Whether it's against your old team or any team - a win's a win, and nothing's better than getting three points...I have a lot of friends on that team. Everyone knows the Timbers - their fans - everyone treated me well. I look back with so many fond memories. It was such an honor to be a part of their inaugural season. You can see the group of fans that they brought down - there's something really special there, and it was special for me to be a part of it. It was definitely good to see some old faces and be able to say hello after the game."
Next Match: Sunday, Aug 26 at Sporting Kansas City (TV: ESPN2)