Apparently, a bout of "foot-in-mouth" disease can extend to your opponent's goalmouth.
As a suspended Rafael Marquez watched from the owner's box on Saturday due to a one-game suspension for his disparaging comments regarding his teammates' form, the Red Bulls struck twice in a 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers at Red Bull Arena. Dane Richards outran Timbers midfielder Diego Chara and tapped a ball across the goalmouth and inside the far post in the 21st minute for the game's first goal, while Luke Rodgers converted a penalty kick in the 66th minute to add some breathing room on the score sheet. Frank Rost collected three saves en route to his second clean sheet and MLS regular season win of the season.
By collecting a valuable three points in the standings over the Timbers (10-13-7, 37 pts), New York (8-7-15, 39 pts) maintains their tenuous hold on the final wild card berth while picking up the valuable win-loss tiebreaker over Portland. D.C. United (9-8-11, 38 pts) remains one point back with two games in hand on the Red Bulls following their decisive 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
However, the Eastern Conference's automatic berths experienced a shakeup as the Houston Dynamo (10-9-12, 42 pts) leapfrogged into first place courtesy of a losing Columbus Crew (11-11-8, 41 pts) side and a draw between Sporting Kansas City (10-9-11, 41 pts) and the Philadelphia Union (9-7-13, 40 pts). According to MLSsoccer.com's Playoff Standings, the Red Bulls now sit two points behind Sporting KC for the conference's final spot in what Red Bulls coach Hans Backe believes is now a wide-open playoff chase for his club.
“I think it is up to us now," said Backe. "We will need to win two or three games to have a chance. We have the chance now, it’s up to us and we have three games at home. But of course, the key game that counts in Philly will probably show if we are in the playoffs or not.”
Plus-11. That's the recovery differential on balls in the middle and attacking thirds for the Red Bulls over Portland on Saturday. The Timbers created a comparable number of attempts (15) on goal as compared to New York (12), but it was an effective and organized defensive press by the Red Bulls that stifled the Portland attack all evening. Dax McCarty led that charge with five recoveries in the middle and final third in what was an all-around solid effort for all defensive parties involved.
"We kind of got back to defending first and foremost; kind of how we had it in Dallas," said Stephen Keel, who started in place of the suspended Marquez. "Cynical defending is what they want to call it. Just keeping everything in front of us, nice and organized, keep everything tight and keep a clean sheet.”
Play of the Game: Rodgers' Penalty Kick. It wasn't as sexy as Richards's opener, as the Jamaican midfielder sprinted past Chara and effectively crossed the ball across the goalmouth for a dramatic finish. And the circumstances making the penalty kick possible -- Timbers midfielder Kalif Alhassan received a straight red card in the 64th minute for a handball at the goal line on a Thierry Henry shot -- merely delayed the inevitable.
When Rodgers struck his right-footed shot from the spot past a diving Troy Perkins and inside the left post, it was fundamental but nonetheless significant. Rodgers's goal gave the Red Bulls their first two-goal lead over any opponent since going up 2-0 on the New England Revolution on June 10. Insurance goals have not been a strong suit for the Red Bulls all season, which made the penalty kick all the more important and the cathartic effect of a Red Bulls club coping with a teammate's criticisms all the more satisfying.
"We came in at halftime down a goal, but still felt we were definitely in it," said Timbers team captain Jack Jewsbury. "In the second half I thought we were banging on the door to get that tying goal. Next thing you know, the penalty is called and all of a sudden we’re down a man. Down two goals and a man is tough anyway, especially away from home.”
They were up by a wide margin over an expansion side that has yet two score two goals in a match away from home in MLS. That's a recipe for success every time.
Six in the Mix. The Red Bulls drew comparisons after Saturday's match to their gutty shutout at FC Dallas last weekend, citing the specific absence of Marquez and the solid defensive efforts by a patchwork back four producing a clean sheet for Rost.
However, one critical difference comes on the offensive ends. New York created six attempts on goal against FCD, while they produced 15 against the Timbers at home. That offensive output resulted in six Red Bulls -- Richards, Rodgers, Henry, Joel Lindpere, Jan Gunnar Solli, and Carlos Mendes -- combining to take the club's eight shots on target. It looks doubly impressive against a Timbers side that collected two shots on target before halftime and one afterwards. New York balanced their intensity across all facets of their game on Saturday, which defender Tim Ream acknowledges was long overdue.
"“Actually we needed to do that starting six, seven, even 10 games ago," said Ream. "That’s something that we really made a conscious effort on coming into this game. it definitely paid off for us, getting a solid 2-0 win and three points and putting us right back into the playoff picture.”
Miss Marquez Much? Speaking of Ream, he came under fire in recent days after being singled out by Marquez in the Mexican defender's post-game comments on Saturday. According to Empire of Soccer, Marquez described his back line partner as "a young player with a lot to learn" and criticized the sophomore center back for committing "errors that are very infantile and cost us goals." So, did it get to Ream?
"“Honestly, I think it would have happened even if the comments weren’t made," Ream said to MLSsoccer.com. "After you take a solid 3-1 beating, you have something to prove. We wanted to prove it was a fluke and that wasn’t who we are. We put our heads down more because of the way we played [on Wednesday], not because of the comments.”
25,008 Strong. The Red Bulls have had their share of sellouts this season, but some of those attendance numbers felt a bit padded with marketing techniques such as announcing the seats sold as compared to seats filled. That wasn't the case on Saturday, as a racuous crowd of 25,008 fans arrived to create an electric atmosphere just three days after a match that saw Red Bulls supporters booing Rafa Marquez's every touch.
New York now gets a week to prepare to travel north of the border for a match against a revamped Toronto FC at BMO Field on Saturday. First kick is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.