HARRISON, N.J. – Ever since the news broke of his potential arrival to New York, Red Bulls forward Luke Rodgers has proven to be a compelling figure before he stepped foot on an MLS field.
With well-documented complications related to his work permit and a resume formed in the lower tiers of English soccer, fans were curious to see whether manager Hans Backe’s drawn-out pursuit of the striker from England’s third division was worth it. On Saturday night, they saw the pay-off.
Making just his second start in MLS – the first in which he was healthy and fit – Rodgers scored two goals in the opening 15 minutes and assisted on the third to propel the Red Bulls to a 3-0 win over the Earthquakes.
“I was just looking forward to getting on the field and playing,” Rodgers said. “We have two great forwards in Thierry [Henry] and Juan [Agudelo]. I wasn’t sure when I was going to get on the pitch.”
It was a dream start for Rodgers, who gave the Red Bulls an important lead with his first ever league goal, a header off a Dane Richards’ bouncing cross in the second minute. The irony that the diminutive Rodgers scored what he termed a “right place, right time goal” with his head was not lost on the 5-foot-7 forward.
“I don’t think I’ve ever suspected scoring a header,” Rodgers said after the match.
While he was easily the shortest player on either team’s starting XI, Rodgers’ impact was huge on the match. The Red Bulls, who held an overwhelming possession edge for a third straight match, utilized Rodgers’ long runs behind the San Jose backline to create chance after chance on the Earthquakes goal.
By holding a very high line, Rodgers created space for strike partner Thierry Henry to wander and create, also freeing up space for Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards on the wing with his constant movement.
“I don’t know if it is because teams don’t see him because he’s so short or because he’s so fast, but he’s always dangerous,” NYRB defender Tim Ream told MLSSoccer.com. “But he runs for 90 minutes.”
Rodgers movement off the ball and his ability to hold possession under pressure, almost like a target striker, was encouraging for New York.
Last weekend in Philadelphia, the Red Bulls struggled in the attacking third to create chances and stretch the Union backline. Now with Rodgers being a pesky firecracker of activity, the back four of San Jose was constantly under pressure and having to follow Rodgers all over the field.
The movement of the Englishman off the ball worked well with Henry, who had several quality second half chances to score. Henry finally scored in the 88th minute off a cross from Rodgers, ending his MLS goal scoring drought at 684 minutes.
It was promising stuff for a Henry-Rodgers strike partnership that Backe has been hinting at since last spring.
“Perhaps he doesn’t have the best record scoring goals but he’s always around,” Backe said. “A busy, busy striker.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer