Polak: Captains Put Locals In Driver’s Seat

This past weekend could not have gone much better for both the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC. In what’s become a thrilling fight to the finish, both teams took over the coveted top two spots in the Eastern Conference, places which will guarantee them a bye past the knockout round games, at 51 points apiece. NYCFC took care of business first, dispatching a last place Houston Dynamo, 2-0, on the road Friday night. One evening later, the Red Bulls rallied from an early deficit for a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union in Harrison to equal their cross-town rivals in points. Add in the fact that Toronto FC, who entered the weekend one point above both teams, was beaten by DC United, 2-1, at home, and there is not much more New York soccer fans could have asked for.

“I’m really pleased with our team performance because I truly believe that we controlled the game,” said NYCFC Head Coach Patrick Vieira after the match. “We managed the game really well…That was a really good team performance away from home.”

As for Red Bulls Head Coach Jesse Marsch, he stated, “I think we got stronger as the game went on, we got better. We were more committed, more focused, more concentrated, and then it leads to us eventually getting the win.”

New York City FC was able to ride a brace from Captain David Villa to victory against a Dynamo team that has managed just 32 points this season but has earned at least one in 12 of their 15 home games. After neither side was able to manage much in the first half, Villa opened the scoring in the 52nd minute with an excellent individual effort. A brilliant first touch off a cross and then strike between the legs of Joe Willis put the visitors ahead. Villa nearly added another just minutes later when his strike from just outside the box nicked the goal post and stayed out.

The Spanish superstar would not miss though in stoppage time, sealing the match with his second tally of the night. Taking the ball off the feed from Tony Taylor and with plenty of open space just inside the 18-yard box, he blasted a shot into the top of the net midway through the 91st minute to put NYCFC in front by two. It marked the second consecutive week that Villa struck for a brace and also put him into the lead for MLS’ Golden Boot with 21 goals on the season.

“Very happy, very pleased with what the team has done on the field,” Villa commented. “Our mentality is that playoffs began today, that is why we are so happy.”

Taylor added, “We are blessed to have him on our team, and he is a great leader. We have a great team, and we are just going to keep pushing together to achieve our goal.”

Following Friday’s result, the Red Bulls entered Saturday’s match against the Union with plenty at stake. New York needed a win to have a chance at going back into the top spot, while the Union came in ranking fourth in the East and still had yet to clinch a playoff berth. With the dogfight atop the East, Marsch and his team have played close attention to their local competition and have used it as a driving force.

“I see a New York team that’s very good and very committed and organized,” said the second-year Red Bulls Head Coach. “It has driven us in so many different ways…It has made us hungry, and it has made us drive to do better, to get better, to be the best.”

New York certainly needed that drive after a lackluster start at Red Bull Arena. Philadelphia struck for the first goal in the 15th minute when Fabian Herbers took a quick pass from Chris Pontius, who had drawn to Red Bulls players to him, and one-timed a shot past Luis Robles. The Red Bulls pushed hard after falling behind but were stymied by Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, who made phenomenal saves on Mike Grella in the 26th and 44th minutes. However, moments after his second stop, New York took momentum when Sacha Kljestan finished off a tic-tac-toe sequence from Dax McCarty and Felipe, leveling the match at one just before halftime.

“It was a great reaction,” said Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips. “After the game when it’s all said and done, I’m glad we went a goal down because it’s good to see for ourselves…to see the character of the team.  As soon as they score we play better.”

The momentum certainly carried into the second half, as Wright-Phillips put New York in front in the 57th minute. After missing on several “home run” passes during the first half, McCarty fired a beautiful over-the-top feed to a sprinting Wright-Phillips. The team’s all-time leading goal scorer snuck past two Union defenders for the ball and rocketed a strike past Blake for his 21st goal of the season, equaling Villa for the Golden Boot lead.

Fans grew a bit concerned just eight minutes later when Pontius leveled the match at two, continuing his success against the Red Bulls this season. Fabinho played a cross right to the front of goal in the 55th minute, and an unmarked Pontius headed the feed past Robles for his 12th goal of the year, a career-high, as well as his fourth in three games against New York this season. For a team that has lost leads in the second half all year long, it was just another piece of adversity the Red Bulls had to face in a crucial match.

“I think a lot of the talk the past couple of months has been our inability to hold onto leads, and some of that talk has been fair,” noted McCarty. “We don’t want that to define us for the season. We should be upset about blowing some of those leads, but at the same time we should feel really proud about what we’re doing with this club.”

What the Captain was referring to about being proud was the unbeaten struck New York is on. The Red Bulls entered the match having not lost in their past 13 MLS matches. After the equalizing goal by Pontius, New York was able to respond immediately and assure themselves of stretching that run to 14. In the 66th minute, they were able to draw a free kick following a foul by Tranquillo Barnetta. Kljestan took the kick and lobbed a perfect ball to a wide open McCarty, who capped off a brilliant performance with a header from just outside the six-yard box past Blake. With the game-winning goal and a pair of assists, it was clear who Saturday’s Man of the Match was.

“Sacha told me before the set piece, ‘Get free and I’ll look for you,” he recalled. “It’s one of those where you hope the line drops and you find yourself onside.”

Marsch would comment on McCarty by saying, “His understanding of what each moment of the game requires is one of the highest levels of any player in that position in the league and potentially any player in the league. He’s going to be the piece that helps us ultimately get over the hump and find a way to really push to go after the championship.”

So now, the stage is set; two games remain for each team. New York City FC will head to DC United (43 points, 5th in East) before hosting Columbus to close the year (35 points, 8th in East). The Red Bulls will host Columbus first and then visit Philadelphia (42 points, 6th in East). Toronto FC, who sits third with 49 points, will play a tough road match at Montreal (44 points, 4th in East) before closing the year at home against last place Chicago (27 points). Three teams, all of whom are battling for the top two spots in the East and that highly-sought-after first round bye. Though the playoffs have yet to begin, it will certainly feel like they have over the final two weeks of the regular season. Buckle up!

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