Sacha Kljestan scored his first goal as a Red Bull Friday night and was named Man of the Match, and all he wanted to talk about following a shutout victory was how he and the team could correct their mistakes and play better.
And that pretty much sums up the new attitude and the mindset of the Red Bulls this season.
With Kljestan and fellow midfielder Mike Grella scoring goals from almost the exact same spot on the field, and a defense led by center backs Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle, who won nearly every aerial battle, the Red Bulls swept past the San Jose Earthquakes, 2-0, before a crowd of 16,406 at Red Bull Arena.
The victory lifted the Red Bulls (3-0-2) over D.C. United and into first place in the Eastern Conference as they remain one of just two undefeated teams remaining in Major League Soccer. The Earthquakes (3-4), coming off a big victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend, lost the first game of a four-game road trip.
“I’m not too happy with my performance tonight, if I’m being honest,” Kljestan said. “I think a lot of us were not our best today. I think besides the results we didn’t do a lot of great things so we’ve got a lot to improve on, and I think I have a lot to improve upon as well.”
Still, it was Kljestan’s best match of the season in terms of position and movement off the ball. And he could have had another goal or two but he couldn’t get a clean header off a Grella cross in the 64th minute when he was wide open in the box, and he was denied by Earthquakes goalkeeper David Bingham on a shot from a tough angle on the left side in the 75th.
It took a while for the Red Bulls to get into the game, but when they did they quickly scored.
Felipe grounded a cross from the right that was intended for Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was sprinting into the center of the box. But Wright-Phillips couldn’t get to the spot in time so he slid to try and poke the ball into the net. Instead, the ball flicked off his foot and deflected to the far post where Kljestan drove it into the net from the edge of the goalie box in the 29th minute.
It was Kljestan’s first MLS goal since the 2010 season when he was with Chivas USA.
“I think it’s gotten a little bit better day-by-day,” Kljestan said about his relationship with the team. “I think my relationship with Bradley is getting better. I still think I wasn’t as sharp as I should have been tonight. I think I could have created three or four more real goal scoring opportunities, but it’s getting better and it’s nice to get on the score sheet because that kind of gets the monkey off the back and then you feel a little bit more comfortable in front of the goal and not so stressed. So in that aspect it’s okay, but I think we need to continue to keep getting better.”
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch agreed, and felt his midfield of Kljestan, Grella, Felipe and Dax McCarty were the difference.
“I think overall our midfield overwhelmed their midfield and Sacha was a big part of that,” Marsch said. “If you were to track balls we gave away, I think we gave away too many in midfield, and Sacha would probably tell you he gave away too many. We don’t focus so much on possession as much as we do reactions and tactical focus and pace of the game, so there’s going to be mistakes. Even when guys don’t have their best nights, we make sure we’re being who we want to be.”
Six minutes later the Red Bulls made it 2-0. Lloyd Sam’s cross from the right found Grella alone at the far post. Bingham took a bad angle to try and block the shot, enabling Grella to slide the ball under him and into the net just inside the right post for his second goal of the season.
“I was at the far post but I was not too surprised because (the defense) usually have to push over (for cover ball-sde),” Grella said about how open he was on the play. “If you’re a little clever and if you pay more attention there’s a lot of balls that come to the back post, maybe not that close to goal, but there (are) a lot of opportunities with someone playing out wide that if you get in on the weak side and you get yourself in the box, there’s always going to be chances.”
San Jose had a few chances to get back into the game in the second half, but goalkeeper Luis Robles came up with three excellent saves, the best coming on a shot in the box by Innocent with seven minutes to play.
Down two goals, the Earthquakes looked for a spark in the second half and coach Dominic Kinnear inserted forward Chris Wondolowski, who injured his calf against Vancouver. Wondolowski sat out the United States’ friendly against Mexico Wednesday night in San Antonio due to the injury, but there was little he could do against a solid Red Bulls defense.
“They do a great job of pressing and pressing high up the field, and they took advantage of our two mistakes,” Wondolowski said. “We were a little sloppy, especially on the first one. … We can’t dig ourselves a hole, we can’t keep putting ourselves 2-0 down at halftime.”
The only negative for the Red Bulls was a slight hamstring injury to Sam, who was replaced by Sal Zizzo in the 76th minute. Fortunately for Sam, the Red Bulls don’t play for nine days, until they host the Los Angeles Galaxy April 26.
“It’s hard to even describe,” Sam said. “(It doesn’t) feel that serious but we’ll see how I feel in the morning and then take it from there. (With) hamstrings you never know how long they’re going to linger.”
Hopefully not as long as the good feeling from a solid victory does.