Well, we told you derbies are never easy.
The Red Bulls scored four minutes into the match Sunday night and had the game by the throat. It could have easily turned into a comfortable win, where the crowd sits back and goes along for the ride. But the 2-1 victory over New York City FC in the first-ever meeting between the two teams – a game in which the Red Bulls played a man down for the final 54 minutes – was a victory made sweeter by the effort and teamwork it took to finish it off.
Bradley Wright-Phillips scored both goals, resembling the lethal goal scorer he was a year ago, and Lloyd Sam registered two assists and was the best player on the field. But the entire team pulled together to overcome the red card to defender Matt Miazga in the 36th minute to the delight of 25,217, the seventh-largest crowd in Red Bull Arena’s six-year history and the 15th sellout overall.
“The test of the will of this team and the mentality and what it takes to be when you’re a man down, I thought we grew so much today,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “That was a character win and I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of our team probably more now than ever.”
Though the Red Bulls were down to 10 men, the energy in the stadium enabled the players to overcome it. And when the second goal came early in the second half you had the feeling the game was won despite some nervy moments the rest of the way.
“The atmosphere was awesome tonight,” said midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who also picked up an assist on Wright-Phillips’ second goal. “… This stadium is just so cool, it’s so tight, every seat in the house seems like a good seat. The fans were loud from the first minute when we came out for warm-ups. It was awesome. You could feel the crowd tonight. I wish every game was like that.
“Tonight was awesome. Dax (McCarty) said it in the huddle. ‘If you guys can’t get yourselves up for this game then step off the field right now because look around. This is awesome.’ And it was."
A few moments later the Red Bulls had the lead.
Sam, who torched NYCFC defender RJ Allen throughout the match, blew past Allen in the fourth minute and carried to the line before chipping the ball to the center of the box where Wright-Phillips easily hooked it into the net for his team-high fourth goal of the season.
“I’m not going to say that was the game plan. It just happened that we kept going to that in the first 15 minutes, and maybe we went away from that a little bit later, but it seemed to be working,” Sam said. “It wasn’t the game plan. We can freestyle on the field and do what we want to do. I felt like we should have kept going but we went away from it a little bit towards the end of the half, and after we had 10 men it was a bit more difficult.”
But that didn’t stop Sam from asking for the ball – and attacking – even down a man.
“He’s like LeBron James on the floor,” Kljestan said. “He gets going in a moment and he starts yelling at people. ‘Hey, give me the ball! I haven’t touched the ball in five minutes! Give me the ball!’ So it’s like, ‘Calm down, Lloyd. We’ll get you the ball.’
“The thing Jesse has said all along is that when Lloyd gets the ball outside, get in the box, because 90 percent of the time he beats his defender. He’s been very good this season and I think he’s been very dynamic and he’s continuing to get better.”
But everything changed in the 36th minute following Miazga’s second card for a foul on NYCFC forward Khiry Shelton. It was a push from behind, but it was near midfield and wasn’t a last-man foul. You would think referee Alan Kelly would just give Miazga a warning rather than alter the game, but he didn’t. Miazga, who was going to remain with the club for the match against FC Dallas Friday night, will instead head off to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup a few days early.
The Red Bulls (4-1-4) changed formation, substituted central defender Karl Ouimette for midfielder Mike Grella, and went to work clogging the inside and frustrating NYCFC (1-6-3).
Wright-Phillips made it 2-0 in the 52nd minute. Sam played a perfect ball on the left to Kljestan, who crossed it low into the center of the box where Wright-Phillips easily directed it past goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
“A lot of the work we put in and what we’ve tried to achieve, it showed when we went down to 10 men,” Wright-Phillips said. “We started well and I could feel a goal coming, but we just didn’t know who was going to score. I was just happy to be on the end of it. I didn’t have to do that much. Lloyd did all the work, but it was a great feeling to score in the derby.”
Wright-Phillips could have put the match away in the 66th minute. Running on to a pass behind the defense, he broke in alone on Saunders, who came out to cut down the angle. Defender Damien Perrinelle, alone in the right side of the box, was screaming for the ball, but Wright-Phillips said after the game he thought Perrinelle might be offside, so he took the shot, which Saunders kicked away.
At that point, NYCFC coach Jason Kreis surprisingly pulled U.S. national team midfielder Mix Diskerud in the 64th minute and designated player David Villa four minutes later. Kreis said he felt Diskerud was having a poor game, and was playing it safe with Villa, who was just returning from injury.
With arguably their two best players on the bench and facing a two-goal deficit, NYCFC found its way back into the game with their two substitutes. Midfielder Kwadwo Poku, who replaced Diskerud, proved dangerous on the ball and had an assist, while Patrick Mullins, who came on for Villa, scored a goal with 14 minutes to play when he met a low cross from the left by Allen and knocked it in at the far post.
With the Red Bulls finally tiring, the crowd provided the lift they needed, pushing the players to close it out.
“The competitive juices get flowing and you go down a man and you see your guys fighting like hell to do everything they can to win that match,” Marsch said. “It was inspiring and I’m proud of them. It was a big night for us. I knew it would be awesome in the stadium tonight and, yes, it did, it exceeded my expectations.”
Added Kljestan: “It’s awesome to win this game. It feels really good. You never want to lose to a rival. To start this game out like that, to walk off that field, feeling proud, feeling good, that’s a good feeling. I hope this rivalry will continue to grow and turn into something great.”
If it hasn’t already.