Whenever there's a bit of magic at Red Bull Arena, it's a safe bet that Thierry Henry was involved. The French striker was at his best again on Saturday night, as he put in a stunning three-assist, one-goal performance in front of a sold out crowd to lift the Red Bulls over hapless Toronto FC 4-1.
Faced with injuries and suspension, coach Hans Backe was forced to make some lineup changes. With starting goalkeeper Bill Gaudette suffering from back spasms, Luis Robles got his first start between the pipes. (For reasons that defy explanation, Gaudette still dressed for the match and was available on the bench despite clearly being in pain any time he took a step.) Lloyd Sam also received his first start in midfield, and Brandon Barklage resumed his spot at left back for the suspended Connor Lade.
The game got off to a roaring start, with Kenny Cooper getting a shot on frame and Toronto pinging a shot off Robles' post within the opening minute. The Red Bulls again fell behind on an early goal, but it's hard to fault the team, as TFC's Ryan Johnson fired a blistering shot from about 35 yards out that hit the upper corner perfectly.
To whatever extent New York needed a wake up call, they heeded it. Seven minutes later saw the scoreline leveled as Thierry Henry placed a corner kick onto the head of an unmarked Marcus Holgersson, who easily snapped it into the net for his third of the year.
The Red Bulls' attack ran rampant in ways it hadn't in months, and a lot of that was thanks to Lloyd Sam's speed and finesse on the right wing. The Red Bulls had been missing attacking speed since dealing Dane Richards to Vancouver, so to see Sam tearing up and down the right side reminded many of how dangerous RBNY can be when the flanks are operating effectively. It didn't make the highlight reel, but Sam's speed was most impressive after he messed up a shot in Toronto's end, as he raced all the way downfield to snuff out the counter-attack. Unfortunately, he would be forced out of the game after 60 minutes with an injury that was called "hamstring tightness".
Before the injury, Sam did have a hand in the second NY goal, feeding a give-and-go pass back to a charging Henry. With defender Richard Eckersley and goalkeeper Freddy Hall closing in from two angle, Henry cut a pass behind Eckersley - and as the defender crashed into his goalkeeper, Kenny Cooper tapped the ball into the open net. It was Cooper's first goal in over a month.
The Red Bulls were putting on a commanding performance, had a one goal lead, and Toronto looked to have forgotten how to attack. But with just a one goal lead, Toronto was one good counter-attack away from stealing points and complicating the playoff picture. They may have left it to late, but New York locked away the game in the 88th minute. This time, with four defenders closing in on him, Henry hit an impossible looking pass to an unmarked Cooper, who sliced the ball into the goal from close for his second of the match.
You would think that three assists would be enough for Henry, but no. Brandon Barklage made a deft slide to keep the ball in play, and while most of Toronto were screaming for a throw-in, Kenny Cooper hit a beautiful pass of his own. The pass sent Henry toward the box from the left where he buried a one-timed lobbed shot to the back post. Poor Freddy Hall joins Sean Johnson and Matt Lampson in a growing club of goalkeepers who have been downright abused by Henry in front of the South Ward.
Henry's performance brings his totals for the season to 14 goals and 12 assists. He is the only player in the league holding double digits in both columns of the score sheet, and has done it in just 22 games played (and no penalty kicks taken). He sits just two assists behind the NY record for assists in a season (Eduarto Hurtado had 14 in 1998) with three games left to play, and has had a hand in 48% of NY's goals this season. He's carrying the team to their best performance in franchise history (2012's 1.71 PPG slightly edges the 2010 record of 1.7). If that's not worthy of a league MVP performance, what is?
The three points lift the Red Bulls into a tie for second place in the East with the Chicago Fire, who return to Red Bull Arena on Saturday for an afternoon game that will have huge implications in the playoff race. A win could clinch a playoff spot for NY if other results go their way; a loss would see them again battling with DC and Houston to stay out of the wildcard spots.
Coach Hans Backe on the way to getting Cooper scoring again: "I think it's more trying to do quite a lot of individual work. More work and also being able to be a target and get a hold of the ball. His kind of 50-50 against center backs, a lot of finishing - but these today, I could've scored on these two."
Backe on whether Henry is the best player in the league: "Oh, that's difficult to say. When he played like this today, I would probably say that. But it's probably impossible to stay on this level every game. But when he shines like this, I'd probably say so, yes."
Brandon Barklage on the defensive strategy: "We're emphasizing a little bit more on when we lose the ball to win in back within the next 5/10 seconds. When we pressure them higher up the field, we know we're closer to goal and that's going to create chances."
Lloyd Sam on his night: "It felt great, man. I've been watching a lot of games, and looking at the midfield with Tim and Dax in there, I'm going to get the ball all day. So I think it compliments me being in the right, and them in the middle. I enjoyed myself today."
Tim Cahill on the performance as a statement: "I think they had nothing to lose. You can see at the start of the game, they scored an absolute bomb from 40 yards, which rattled us a bit and meant that we had to regroup. But I think tonight all the lads, everyone collectively, all the staff, we did our talking on the football pitch. We answered in the right way, by not only winning the game but emphatically. It was a great performance, it was solid."
Dax McCarty on being back in the middle and his partnership with Cahill: "I really enjoy playing with Tim in the middle. In this league, you play against some pretty athletic, pretty good midfields...with me, I just try to make sure we're solid defensively, and then I let our special players that can attack and go forward make magic. Felt good being back in the middle of the field tonight, I'm comfortable in there...I'm very happy to be back in the middle. I think the partnership with Tim has a chance to grow, and it's just going to get better and better."
Kenny Cooper on Thierry's performance: "I think [the two goals] may have been more difficult to miss than to put in. Thierry's just exceptional and world class, and he showed so much quality today. For me, it's such a privilege to line up along side him, you know, on a Saturday, and to train with him on a daily basis. He's amazing."
Thierry Henry on what's on his mind after such a dominant performance: "I can't get out of my head that we conceded a goal again early. I know it was a goal, but it should've been 1-0 down after 45 seconds. I've been saying the same thing since the beginning of the season, we have to come back into games and fight and use more energy than some other teams. At the end of the day, we did what we had to do, but you know - every time we have to come out of a bad situation. That's the way it is, you have to fight for everything in this world - but, again, it's tiring."
Next Match: Saturday, Oct 6 at 3:30 PM, vs. Chicago (TV: NBC)