A little help can go a long way, but a little help from a conference rival helped the Red Bulls finally go all the way.
An own goal by Union 'keeper Faryd Mondragon helped the New York Red Bulls clinch the last remaining MLS playoff berth in a 1-0 win over Philadelphia at Red Bull Arena on Thursday evening. Dane Richards, starting up top in place of the suspended Thierry Henry, headed a Jan Gunnar Solli cross at the near post in the 8th minute, only to have the ensuing rebound bank off Mondragon's arm and into the net for the game's only goal.
New York bucked a Philly defensive trend by creating more attempts on goal and shots on target against the visiting Union, who typically allowed only three shots per game heading into tonight's match. Richards led the Red Bulls with three attempts on goal and two on target, which almost single-handedly topped Philly's meager four attempts and only shot on target by Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer.
The win puts the Red Bulls in temporary control of the 9th overall playoff spot, though a Houston Dynamo win on Saturday could bump New York into the lowest available wild card berth heading into the MLS Playoffs.
Play of the Game: The Own Goal. It likely won't curry favor from the MLS Goal of the Week nomination committee, but how New York's only tally on Thursday's score sheet came about could hint at a postseason recipe for the box.
New York's attackers crashed the penalty box early with a balance that's typically lacking when the offensive strategy revolves around providing service to Henry. Solli had no fewer than four teammates scattered across the box and a Union back line stretched thin in coverage. The lanes were open, the directions clear, and the cross to the diminutive Richards found its mark without much resistance.
If not for the deflection off Mondragon, both Richards and Joel Lindpere stood in prime position to finish the rebound. But that course of events helped New York set the offensive tone for the rest of the night while simultaneously discouraging their guests and the rowdy Sons of Ben who trekked up the New Jersey Turnpike to cheer the visiting side. It was never pretty, but nothing about this Red Bulls side has been this season.
'Keeping It Clean. German shot-stopper Frank Rost picked up a fourth clean sheet in seven matches, which gives the Red Bulls designated player his fourth win of the season -- which now boosts him above fellow 'keepers Bouna Coundoul and Greg Sutton for most team wins. For a club that has started five different 'keepers across the 2011 season, Rost has clearly emerged as the best of the bunch.
Ten. That's how many attempts on target by the Union resulted in shots off target. Philly kept pace with New York in the chances created department, but an effective Red Bulls defense led by team captain Rafael Marquez and supported by maligned back line stalwarts Tim Ream and Roy Miller created enough traffic in the defensive end to let the likes of Sebastian Le Toux and second-half substitute Freddy Adu from developing a Union attack. New York's defense kept it practical in the back, implying that they bought into Red Bulls coach Hans Backe's call for "cynical soccer" in their most important match of the season.
The Kid Stays In the Picture. Backe elected to start Richards up top alongside Luke Rodgers at the expense of teenage phenom Juan Agudelo, who didn't enter the match until the 92nd minute as a late substitute. It worked, as Philly struggled to break up one Red Bulls rush after another. But it also cleared up where Agudelo resides on Backe's depth chart.
New York can now plan their playoff itinerary, but not their opponent. A Houston win this season will cue up a match at FC Dallas or Real Salt Lake, while a Dynamo loss could leave the Red Bulls kicking off at the Colorado Rapids or the Dynamo.
For now, New York can relax. The Red Bulls are finally in the MLS playoffs.