HARRISON, N.J. – All Dane Richards does is score goals, apparently.
When Thierry Henry signed with the New York Red Bulls, the speculation was that the former Barcelona striker would lift the goal scoring burden off Juan Pablo Ángel’s shoulders. Few thought that the player who would benefit the most from the Frenchman’s presence would be New York’s enigmatic right midfielder.
With his fourth goal of the season scored in the sixth minute of Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Kansas City Wizards, Richards has turned into one of the hottest players in the league. And not a moment too soon – Richards’ has hit his stride at the perfect time for a Red Bulls team heading into the playoff push. The Red Bulls have taken 10 points in the four games in which Richards has scored, all of which have come after August 21.
“He’s almost unstoppable,” Backe said of Richards when he gets the ball at his feet. “[For him] it is about the awareness when to run.”
The right winger’s form has seen the Red Bulls go from a solid playoff position in late August to the Eastern Conference leaders tonight. With Henry having scored only twice in league play, it has been Richards that has carried much of the load for the squad.
“Dane is on fire right now,” Tony Tchani told MLSSoccer.com. “He’s always wide open. Sometimes when I’m supposed to play that long ball, I can look and find him. Especially if he’s behind that last and final defender and timing his run, I know he will get it.”
Richards improved form isn’t limited to his goal scoring; his game has grown with maturity. Once thought to be a one-trick pony down the right flank, the speedy product out of Clemson has seen his skill set polished and refined over the past month. He scored in a friendly against Trinidad & Tobago in mid-August for his national team and since then, Richards has been finding nothing but the back of the net for the Red Bulls. Backe credits Richards with greater decision-making ability and more poise on the ball.
Defender Chris Albright said that every left back in the league knows that “if he gets a step on you, you’re in trouble.” But Albright sees a growth with Richards over the past six weeks that has translated itself to his recent string of scintillating performances.
Richards himself points to the goal in the friendly against Trinidad & Tobago as the turning point in the season for him.
“It’s all about confidence right now,” Richards said. “My teammates are confident in me right now.”
The confidence has spread. While Richards points to Henry making a difference in creating space for him to play wide – “since he got here I started scoring” – it is clear that Richards is now the man for the Red Bulls as September turns to October. With his goal on Saturday night, Richards booked a playoff ticket for the Red Bulls and gave the club a serious lift towards capturing home field advantage for the MLS Cup playoffs.
“If you look at the beginning of the year and now, he’s improved all along,” Backe said. “He’s impressed me.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012