GIASE: Another step forward as "sharp and committed" Red Bulls down Impact

Another win, another step closer to the Eastern Conference title, and another step closer to the Supporters’ Shield.

Thank you, FC Dallas and Vancouver.

With FC Dallas and the Whitecaps playing to a scoreless tie late Wednesday night, the Red Bulls have opened a three-point lead for the Shield and have a six-point lead on D.C. United for the conference title.

But the Red Bulls needed to take care of their own business, which they did with a 2-1 victory over the Montreal Impact before 14,961 Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena. It wasn’t one of their prettier wins of the season. This one took grit, a strong defensive effort against a world-class striker, and a mindset to take over the game when the Impact went down to 10 men following a red card just 15 minutes into the match.

“Yeah, I think so. There was a part of that today,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said about how his team dug down to get the victory. “I do think even before we went up a man that we pushed the game hard and fast and we could've been up earlier than that.

“From the get-go, our group was pretty sharp and committed to play the way we want to play. Huge three points for us today, huge three points. Puts us on top of the table, puts us in good shape, gives us a couple days to recover and then we get ready for another push in the final three games.”

The Red Bulls, who have given up early goals the past few games, started strong, with scoring chances by defender Connor Lade in the second minute and midfielder Dax McCarty in the ninth just missing the mark.

The breakthrough came in the 15th minute. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan had the ball in the right side of the box and cut back on a defender to center the ball to Bradley Wright-Phillips near the penalty spot. Wright-Phillips’ shot deflected off Impact defender Laurent Ciman, then bounced off the hands of goalkeeper Evan Bush and headed toward the net.

Defender Ambroise Oyongo, a former Red Bull, was on the line and pushed the ball away with his hand while snapping his head to make the clearance appear to be a head ball. But referee Ted Unkel was on the spot and ejected Oyongo, forcing the Impact to play a man down the final 75 minutes.

Kljestan drove the penalty kick straight down the middle as Bush dove to his right and the Red Bulls (16-9-6, 54 points) had a 1-0 lead in the 16th minute.

Thirteen minutes later, the Red Bulls found themselves at the penalty spot again after Impact defender Donny Toia tripped Lloyd Sam in the box. Kljestan likely knew he would have to pick a side since he went down the middle the first time and was practicing his run to the ball while Unkel dealt with the protests from the Impact (12-13-6).

That’s when Impact forward Didier Drogba stepped in front of Kljestan during his run. Kljestan shoved Drogba and other players got involved before Unkel settled both sides down. Then Kljestan pushed his PK toward the right post, but Bush dove to push it aside with a full stretch.

“Not really,” Kljestan said about whether the antics threw off his preparation. “I'm glad that the rest of the guys had my back and they came in and tried to shove him off the ball also. It's gamesmanship, it's whatever. Teams have been doing that to us all year. We don't seem to get any respect because the referee should just give him a yellow card and walk him away right there. But that didn't mess me up, I just think I hit the second penalty without any real conviction, and that's my fault.”

Wright-Phillips had been the team’s regular penalty kick taker earlier in the season before missing two in one game. Kljestan eventually took over and had been perfect in four PKs before the miss.

“I don't sit on the sideline and (say) who takes the penalties. That's (the players') decision,” Marsch said. “We know that Sacha has become the shooter now, and if he doesn't feel good about taking the second one, then Brad's ready to step up and take one, but I'm not going to be yelling from the bench (who to take the penalty). That's part of their decision-making on the field.”

The miss was forgotten when Sam scored his 10th goal of the season two minutes before the break.

Sam’s pass down the middle sent Wright-Phillips in alone on Bush. Wright-Phillips cut left around the goalkeeper, but by the time he was in position to shoot, Toia got a foot in to deflect it away. The ball rolled out to Sam, who chipped it over the crowd just under the crossbar.

“There were a lot of guys in front of me so I knew it had to be kind of precisely under the bar,” Sam said. “I'm happy to see that go in. I've been trying to score as many goals as I can this season. It feels great to be getting goals and helping the team. Home games we always seem to create more chances. I'm happy to be getting in those situations to score goals and thank God they've been going in.”

At that point it was just a matter of bottling up Drogba, which the Red Bulls did except for a penalty kick in the 68th minute following a trip by Sam on Toia near the left post. Drogba, the former Chelsea star, drove the ball into the side netting on the left for his eighth goal in eight games after signing with the Impact in the summer.

“We watched a lot of video on him and we knew what he brought to the table,” Red Bulls midfielder Mike Grella said. “Especially his physicality, and so you know I think you can see every time he touched the ball there were two or three of us around him, bumping him and giving him a hard time, so he couldn't really find the game.

“But for sure, you know, it's hard to say how good we were defensively because they had the red card for most of the game and we possessed the ball most of the time, but for sure, we did well defensively. We did well in creating a lot of chances. And you know, at the end of the day, we take the three points home.”

The Red Bulls had their chances to extend the lead in the second half, only to be denied by Bush or the woodwork.

Ronald Zubar’s header off a Kljestan corner kick went wide in the 49th minute, and Wright-Phillips shot over the bar three minutes later. Shaun Wright-Phillips came in for Grella in the 63rd minute and drove a shot off the right post in the 70th minute.

Perhaps their best opportunity came in the 76th minute, when Shaun Wright-Phillips stole the ball and sent his brother in alone, but Bradley’s shot hit the base of the left post and bounced away.

“Yeah, an important win,” Kljestan said. “Not a perfect game by any means – we could've been sharper, we could've not let them back in the game in the way that we did – but overall the most important thing is three points.

“Very pleased with the result. You know, a lot of wins at home this season have been very important. This one puts us a good step in front of the rest of the group behind us in the East, and then also as we go towards the Supporters' Shield. So, overall, a very good result tonight.”