HARRISON, N.J. – Well, that’s certainly one way to get your first three points of the season.
With their backs against the wall, the New York Red Bulls turned in one of the more memorable performances in recent history, topping the Houston Dynamo, 4-3. It was hardly easy, as the squad lost three players to injury and fell behind twice in the match, but their resiliency carried them on the night en route to a gritty home win.
Plenty to talk about in this one, so let’s dive right in.
Goalless No More
Not only were the Red Bulls looking for their first win of the season, they hadn’t even scored a goal heading into Saturday night’s match.
The offensive ineptitude was understandably frustrating as the team was desperate to find a way to find the back of the net by any means necessary. Fortunately for New York, the break through came relatively early, with Sacha Kljestan netting the team’s first goal of 2016 in the 22nd minute.
Their lead was short lived, however, as the Dynamo struck back with two goals before the halftime whistle. But the second half saw a different Red Bulls attack entirely, as New York netted three goals that were each gritty, sublime, and unbelievable, respectively.
“We needed some guys to step up,” head coach Jesse Marsch said. “We needed some guys to make some plays. Obviously Felipe does and we almost needed a performance like that to kind of bring some life back into our team. So that part was good.”
So often the hero last season, Mike Grella popped up once again to give his team the jolt needed to go on and grab all three points. It wasn’t in quite the mold that Red Bull fans have come to expect from “Grelladinho,” but the tenacious, if not fortuitous goal to tie the match served as one of the more important moments on the night.
“It was a big turning point for the match and a turning point for all of us,” Grella said after the match. “We weren’t going to go down at home. Even Felipe’s goal that ties the game is huge. We showed that we were not going to give this one up and we were going to do whatever it took to win.”
Stymied for over 200 consecutive minutes to start the season, the Long Island native offered his take on what eventually led to the floodgates being opened.
“We stopped thinking that everything was so important,” Grella added. “We just went out there and said, ‘Let’s play. Let’s fight. Let’s play with no fear.’ That was the key.
“Last year we just came out here as huge underdogs and just played with no fear and left it all out on the pitch. I think we maybe got away from that a little bit. We have a target on our back this year and we’ve been trying to be too perfect with the way we want to play this year. I think we forgot that we needed to go out there and actually play and fight. This will serve as a good example for us for the rest of the year.”
Never Say Die
Over the course of the match, the Red Bulls encountered the type of adversity that would perhaps force lesser teams to buckle.
The situation admittedly looked bleak as Marsch was forced to burn all three substitutions by the 54th minute with his team still trailing. First, Gonzalo Veron—making his first MLS appearance of the season after sustaining an injury during preseason—went down in the 32nd minute, appearing to have aggravated the aforementioned hamstring injury.
Not long after, defender Gideon Baah was forced out of the game with a similar knock, and the Ghanaian was visibly distraught as he exited the pitch. His centerback partner, Ronald Zubar, would be the next victim of the hamstring bug, going down less than ten minutes into the second half.
It appeared the Red Bulls had found a lifeline through Grella’s equalizer, but their joy soon turned to despair, as Houston’s Alex put the Dynamo back in front just a minute later.
With their backs against the wall, New York dug deep, and simply would not be denied on the night.
“We have some character and some heart,” captain Dax McCarty told NewYorkRedBulls.com. “I’m not going to lie, I was questioning our character and heart at halftime. We questioned our intensity, our desire, our hunger, our heart, our manhood, and we responded. A lot of guys got injured, which is unfortunate, but the guys that came onto the field did a good job and they helped to change the game.
“Mike Grella was fantastic, Connor Lade made a huge difference, Kemar Lawrence moved to centerback, Karl Ouimette was a big difference for us; it says a lot about the character of the guys to respond the way we did.”
Kljestan was equally as impressed with the response of his side, particularly of those called into action off the bench.
“A guy like Connor Lade really sticks out to me,” he said. “He came on the field with a ton of energy and his first play was a hard tackle against Andrew Wenger to send a message quickly. The way he played with the ball, pushed the game, joined the attack, made plays on his side of the field, he was a leader on the field. Grella gets a goal, Karl Ouimette comes in and plays solid; those three guys helped a lot.”
At halftime, Marsch issued a challenge to his men, imploring them to play unafraid. And in the face of what seemed like a highly improbable comeback, a collective unit stood their ground to earn their first win in dramatic fashion.
“The thing I'll say about Karl and Connor coming in is two things that define them as players and as people are that they are two of the bravest guys on our team,” Marsch said. “They're never afraid of big moments. Every time they're called on I know they'll be ready to go. In that sense I thought that they stepped up and they brought some of that to our team tonight, so that was great.”
The grit and resolve on the night surely pushed the Red Bulls to their first win of the season. Even still, the result falls largely on the shoulders of the team’s enigmatic midfielder.
In contrast to the hard-working goal that gave New York their first equalizer of the match, it was Felipe’s virtuoso performance that sealed all three points for the Red Bulls on the night.
In a moment of sheer individual brilliance, the Brazilian took matters into his own hands and sent a screaming curler past Joe Willis to level the match in the 77th minute.
And with the match winding down, Felipe proved to have one more moment of magic in his locker, firing home the first free kick for New York since Thierry Henry’s curling effort against DC United back in 2012.
“Felipe scored a couple of beautiful goals,” Kljestan said. “He scored that amazing third goal and when the free kick he came, he said, ‘Let me take it. I’m going to score.’ He put it in the back of the net, it was amazing.”
After belting in a screamer to tie the match, Felipe was admittedly feeling good about his chances on the free kick, and Kljestan was more than happy to oblige.
“Thanks to Sacha who let me take it,” he said. “I was really confident that I could score. Thanks to him, I could take it, but he’s still our first choice to take it because he’s amazing on those. I’m just happy today that I could score.”
With their first three points behind them, the team can now move forward and build upon their winning ways. It may not have been the prettiest performance, but the Man of the Match was pleased with the effort on the night.
“This is what we’re about,” Felipe continued. “The fans need to know that we are a family and every time we go to the field, we give everything we have. The guys were fantastic and we couldn’t be more proud.”
SUBSCRIBE TO THE NEW YORK RED BULLS EMAIL NEWSLETTER