In the long and illustrious history of NY-Philly sport rivalries, the Red Bulls and the Union fall just a little short. In the three years since the Union joined Major League Soccer, few games have had that feeling of hatred between the two teams. Saturday's matinee could have easily met that threshold, as Philly had a chance to play spoiler and force NY into the Wild Card game. But it was not to be: the Red Bulls dominated, handing Philly a 3-0 thrashing to close the season at PPL Park, setting up a playoff series with a truly hated rival—DC United.
With the news coming earlier this week that winger Lloyd Sam would be out for the season with a knee injury, coach Hans Backe only made a single change to the lineup from the Kansas City game. Joel Lindpere resumed his starting spot on the left wing, pushing Dax McCarty out to the right. The Union's lineup was again missing former wonderkid Freddy Adu, which has led to widespread speculation as to whether or not Philly may be looking to dump him in the offseason.
After a quiet opening 10 minutes, Tim Cahill would get hacked down by Carlos Valdes in the box to earn a penalty kick. Kenny Cooper squared up, made a fairly comical skipping run towards the spot, and shot a perfectly placed penalty into the lower left corner. Union GK Zac MacMath guessed correctly but couldn't reach the ball, and RBNY had an early 1-0 lead. While Kenny Cooper was ready to run back to the center line to restart the game, he was dragged by Thierry Henry over to the nearby NY supporters to celebrate his 17th goal of the season.
The Red Bulls were bolstered by the first goal, and the second became inevitable. Philadelphia's midfield coughed up the ball under pressure in the 35th minute, which Thierry Henry collected. The legendary French striker coolly dribbled into the box, faked out Carlos Valdes, and smacked a left footed shot to the back corner.
Going into the second half with a two goal lead, it's perhaps no surprise that New York sat back to start the second half. The Union's desire to not end their season looking like chumps at home saw them surging back, earning endless corner kicks and open chances in the second half. New York could have easily given up a goal, but Philly's incompetence in front of the net defied the odds. Free shots went wide, breakaways broke down, and Luis Robles made two easy stops to maintain the clean sheet.
Philly's resurgence added pressure to NY to put the game out of reach, and they do so in the 66th minute. Yet another poor defensive clearance from Philly saw the ball get gobbled up by Dax McCarty, who fed a tight through-ball to Cooper. "KFC" ran onto the ball and with no defense on him, put a gentle shot at a tight angle, just out of reach for MacMath for his second goal of the afternoon. Cooper could have gone on to get a hat trick, but was subbed shortly thereafter so Sebastian Le Toux could get some minutes against his former team - his substitution was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos from the home crowd.
The locker room was full of praise for the six buses worth of Viking Army and Empire Supporters Club supporters that had made the short trip down I-95 to Chester. For large portions of the game, the combined South Ward section was the only thing that could be heard, as dejected Union supporters sulked. It wouldn't be a successful away trip without a few arrests: security swarmed the section after a smoke bomb was ignited mid-game, hauling off a few supporters in handcuffs. Many Philly fans seemed more interested in the police activity than the game - which is understandable, as the Chester cops appeared to be the only locals capable of getting the job done.
New York's win (the first on the road since May 19th) ends their season with a 16-9-9 record and 57 points, their third best performance in franchise history. They have qualified for the MLS playoffs for the 9th time in 10 years - only missing the post-season after the abysmal 2009 season. Kenny Cooper's 18 goals left him one shy of the franchise record for goal in a season, still held by Juan Pablo Angel.
The win also allows RBNY to avoid a wild card play-in match on Wednesday night. (Playing an elimination match on Halloween in the aftermath of the FRANKENSTORM would've been too cruel.) Instead, New York gets to rest and prepare for the home-and-home Conference Semifinal series against DC United. There's no love lost between these two sides, especially during the playoffs: DC has eliminated NY from the playoffs all three times they've met there, including the inaugural 1996 season. New York will host DC on Saturday night at 8PM, and the return leg at RFK will follow on Wednesday the 7th - both games will be televised on NBC Sports Network, and tickets for both legs are available.
(And a special note to Jonathan Tannenwald, who expressed shock that the Red Bulls were "trendy" enough for Gothamist to show up in Chester - dude, I've been here all season. Don't you know? Hipsters love soccer!)
Coach Hans Backe on the confidence boost: "I think the last two games, we played great against Kansas now, we have two clean sheets in a row going into the playoffs. Also scoring 3 away, I mean everyone knows how difficult it is to play here, it's been tough every time we've been here. Of course it's massive for us, and now of course avoiding the mid-week game, and that means a lot."
Coach Hans Backe on his preferred opposition in the playoffs: "I'm just happy that we avoid Kansas and of course not have to play the wild card game. I don't think it really matters who we play, Chicago or DC - they are two teams that have almost peaked too, but I don't feel it matters."
Tim Cahill on the win: "I think we had no choice. We needed to win. We said before the game that it meant a lot for us to try and win this game. Now that we've done it, we can put our bodies back together and prepare for a big playoff time. Three goals away from home and to not concede, I think is a pretty good performance. In the second half we could've been a lot better - and I think we could've added to it as well. But overall, this is where we've got to be when you're coming into the playoffs. When you're expected to win, then you have to show up in big games like this. I'm just happy with the results, and all the boys are buzzing about it."
Sebastian Le Toux on his future: "In the month of December, I will decide what I want to do...I will be talking with my agent and with other teams who may want a part of me playing for them. It can be here [in MLS], it can be in Europe, we will see...Of course, Philadelphia is one of the teams I like the most - it's not, how you say, a secret for anybody. I'm just going to see what happens. I'm [at the end of] my contract so I can really decide where I want to be, and not this year, being right and left and don't really play in what team you decide to be. So it was a bit different this year for me."
Dax McCarty on the defensive form in the last two games: "Can't say enough good things about the back four. I think today, maybe we started to get a little disjointed. We knew the game was probably a little bit out of hand for them at that point, at 3-0. Maybe we got a little bit lazy, but overall, they were fantastic for the past two games. You can really see that Heath [Pearce] is comfortable out there at the left, it's his natural position. He's got great positioning. Connor [Lade] always brings the work rate and the fight, and his positioning is getting better each game. Then with Marcus and Rafa, I think they compliment each other well. Obviously you lose a little bit of speed, but at the end of the day, I think both of their smarts and their soccer IQ can definitely make up for it. Good performances from them, we're going to need that, we're going to need shutouts in the playoffs, it's the only way we're going to win."
Thierry Henry on the importance of a weekend game and a big crowd over a Halloween game: "I don't know about Halloween, man. This is football. For me, there is no Halloween in football. Halloween or not, we're going to have to perform, crowd or not. It's way better obviously like they were against Kansas City - unbelievable when we played them the other night. We're going to have to play better, raise the bar in the playoffs. Like I said to you, if we can have that togetherness with the fans out there to support us on the game next weekend."
Coach Hans Backe on Cooper's play: "He's a striker that needs good surroundings. You need players who can set him up for finishing...I would say I was surprised when he scored the second one. It looked like, I would say, a mistake from the goalie. I mean, normally you can't score from that angle. But still, he's there, and I think he's up to 18 or something like that now...but he needs good players around him to set him up."
Thierry Henry on Cooper's play and positioning (LISTEN): "Well, that's what he does best. That's what he does best. Dax gave him a great ball, he had a penalty today. But we all got to do a bit more, you know. As a center forward sometime, you also got to keep the ball better up front. It's not only scoring goals. You've got to keep the ball better sometimes up front, and pass the ball also to your teammates. That's also important. But! 18 goals, we need that, and we're going need more of his goals and more of him."
Next Match: Eastern Conference Semifinals - Saturday November 3rd, 8PM, vs. DC United (TV: NBC Sports Network)