HARRISON, N.J. – The Red Bulls extended their lead atop the Eastern Conference to two points following a scoreless tie with Real Salt Lake on Saturday afternoon.
It wasn’t the most fascinating match and neither team took a scoop of creativity with their pregame meal, but it was a draw against the defending MLS Cup champions — and for New York, that’s a good thing.
The tie also takes them one step closer to their first Eastern Conference title since 2000. Here are four things to take from Saturday’s draw:
1. Tying Ugly
Last weekend, the Red Bulls squeaked out a 1-0 win at home against Kansas City in a match where the visitors outplayed New York. On Saturday, the Red Bulls matched Real Salt Lake by showing a brash, physical style of play.
"[With] this is a type of game, when two teams are in good shape [and] are well organized … a result of a tie is OK,” head coach Hans Backe said.
In their previous game against RSL, a 1-0 loss at Rio Tinto, New York let the MLS Cup holders control the midfield. That just wasn't the case on Saturday.
2. The Rafa Factor
One missing key in September's loss to Real Salt Lake was central midfielder Rafa Márquez, who at the time was away on international duty with Mexico.
This time, Márquez helped calm the midfield, controlling the ball and providing some good distribution. It wasn’t a great match by Márquez, who was sloppy at times, but still he improved the shape and bite of the midfield.
“Both midfields couldn’t really create the big chances because of good defending,” Backe said.
3. Smells Like Playoff Spirit
Saturday's match had the feeling of a postseason fixture — or possibly an MLS Cup final — with two sides tentatively feeling each other out and hoping not to make a mistake.
“It did feel like a playoff match out there,” midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy told MLSsoccer.com. “The intensity and everyone battling for the ball — that’s how it has to be from now on. We need to make every game like that.”
This time last year, the Red Bulls were packing it in to finish last in the overall standings. This year, they’re gearing up not only for the playoffs, but also potentially homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
4. International Duty
No club has been more affected by national team call-ups than New York.
On Saturday, the Red Bulls were without goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul and midfielder Dane Richards. Greg Sutton replaced Coundoul in goal and had several nice saves en route to a shutout performance to prove he has the stuff to be a starting 'keeper in this league.
The Red Bulls lined up Joel Lindpere on the right wing to replace Richards, and he looked solid if not a little uncomfortable there. It was a makeshift formation, but it handled RSL’s midfield quite well.
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012