3:00 pm Jul. 19, 2012
Wednesday afternoon's match at Red Bull Arena between the New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire, a 1-0 victory for the home side, had all the makings of a Metrostars-style disaster.
First, there was the timing of the event itself. The Red Bulls decided to try a 1 p.m. start, hoping to capitalize on bringing in summer campers to enjoy M.L.S. action. But the brutal heat—101 degrees at gametime—kept virtually everyone else away. The announced attendance of 15,814 seemed, well, highly optimistic.
Not only did the weather fail to cooperate, but the Red Bulls found themselves really needing a win in those brutal conditions. This was the middle game of a three-game homestand for the Red Bulls, being played over a seven-day period. Having just drawn, 2-2 with Seattle on Sunday, the Red Bulls were already a good bet to be tired.
So those campers saw a match that, for most of it, was pretty uninspired. Players were standing still when they'd normally be making runs, conserving energy in the extreme heat. And all signs pointed to a scoreless draw, which would have meant the Red Bulls had collected two out of a possible six points in two home games. That kind of form at home simply won't be enough to win the Supporters' Shield in M.L.S.
But a pair of plays late in this match served as a reminder that so far this season, the Red Bulls look different from their unsuccessful predecessors dating back to the beginning of M.L.S.
Most obviously, there was this absurd goal from Thierry Henry. He received a ball deep in Fire space from newly-acquired Sebastian Le Toux, created just enough room between himself and two Chicago defenders to launch a shot from what would seem like an impossible angle, and dropped the ball in the goal to give the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead.
It was precisely the kind of play that still serves as an anomaly in M.L.S. This isn't a knock on the league, frankly: it would have been an anomaly in any league in the world. Henry's skills haven't been in evidence over the past two months due to injury, after a torrid start. They certainly were late in this match.
For all of the excitement around Henry's goal, the Red Bulls still had a good chance of dropping those points when the Fire attacked in the 83rd minute. The Fire's Rafael Roboyo got off a shot that looked destined to be an equalizer, only to have the heroic Brandon Barklage race in and clear it at the goal line.
The two players, Henry and Barklage, represent areas that have been failings for this franchise for a long time. Henry, an expensive import performing well when his club needs him, is a welcome change from other failed, big-time signings, including Rafa Marquez, who sat out Wednesday with another injury. And Barklage, picked up after getting cut by DC United, continued reversing the club's history of letting players go who go on to excel elsewhere.
The net result, a victory that keeps New York in the thick of the Supporters' Shield race, could be more than three points. It looked a little like a breakthrough for a franchise overdue for one.