A Red Bulls team known for its star-studded offense is being carried by the team’s defense.
That defense set the tone in Wednesday night’s 2-0 road win against FC Dallas in the wild-card round of the MLS playoffs. Now, the Red Bulls host the Los Angeles Galaxy, a team which captured the Supporters Shield with the best regular-season record in the league, on Sunday afternoon.
For all the glamour and expense of Thierry Henry, the hype around teenage forward Juan Agudelo and the clutch goals of speedy Dane Richards, it was tenacious defending that lifted New York into the next round of the playoffs.
Including their playoff win at Dallas, the Red Bulls have had five shutouts in their last eight games — a testament to what head coach Hans Backe calls “cynical defending.”
It is the type of gritty, no-nonsense defending that lifted the team on the road for their first playoff series win since 2008. It was a confident performance from what Backe called a “relaxed, calm team.”
“A solid game for us, definitely the key for us was defense,” Backe said. “I’m very pleased with our defense.”
At the beginning of the season, Backe looked at his roster with pride. He even set the team’s goal as the Supporters Shield, the standard for regular season consistency. After a hot start to their MLS campaign, including just one loss in their first eight games, the Red Bulls fizzled. Instead of cruising into the playoffs with the Supporters Shield in tow, they squeaked into the 10th and final playoff spot.
But over the last two months, there hasn’t been a better, more consistent team in league play. It isn’t the prettiest soccer, and not what would be expected of a team replete with international stars and talent, but it has been effective.
For Henry, who scored in stoppage time on Wednesday night to cap off the win, it is what’s necessary to get the win and advance in the playoffs.
“We had a great playoff game, maybe not one of our best performances in terms of passing the ball, but sometimes you have to dig in and win games,” Henry said. “If we want to go through, we had to play tight and have a great team performance. That’s what happened even going down to 10-men. We were under pressure, but we didn’t look like we’d concede a goal.”
The Red Bulls are 1-0-1 against the Galaxy this season, including a 2-0 win earlier this month.
“We have a lot of respect for them, they were the best team in the league this year so we know the task is going to be very difficult,” Henry said. “We were one of the few teams this year able to beat them, they know that.”
Follow Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer for in-depth news on the Red Bulls.