By DAN KARELL
HARRISON, N.J. — The Red Bulls were boosted on Saturday by the return of Thierry Henry, and he marked it in style.
Henry, who started on the bench due to injury, scored the game-winning goal in the 81st minute, as New York won their first game of the season 2-1 over the Philadelphia Union. It was the Red Bulls captain’s first goal of the season.
“We needed to win,” said Henry. “I think the most important thing today was to win, no matter how.”
Henry was a major doubt to play today, as the 35-year-old was recovering from an MCL sprain to his left knee, suffered two weeks ago in the scoreless draw with D.C. United. Henry didn’t travel with the team to last week’s loss at Montreal, and was coy during the week on whether he would or wouldn’t play on Saturday.
“I knew that Thierry was going to play,” Red Bulls manager Mike Petke said. “I just didn’t know exactly what the best situation was for him. To me, if Thierry was going to play tonight, it would be best in the second half.
Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty broke a 300+ minute team goalless streak with a pretty back heel finish in the 55th minute that deflected in off the far post to give the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead.
Philadelphia substitute Conor Casey then equalized just eight minutes later, heading in a throw-in from defender Sheanon Williams that went past the outstretched arms of Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.
“We did a great job to tie it,” Union defender Amobi Okugo said. “Conor (Casey) came in and made a great difference with the goal.”
In the 59th minute, Henry made his return to the pitch for the first time in two weeks. The former Arsenal forward immediately gave life to the Red Bulls attack, and brought the crowd to their feet with an audacious bicycle kick in the 76th minute.
But his late goal in the final ten minutes of the match showed his class. Left back Heath Pearce chipped a ball on the left wing to forward Peguy Luyindula, who sent a perfectly placed cross to Henry in the box. Henry controlled the ball with his right thigh, and then in one movement, hit a left-footed strike into the far post, giving Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath no chance to make a save.
“We tried to knock on the door so many times to score goals,” Henry said. “We had a couple of chances to go 2-1 and we didn’t take them, and finally in the end we scored on a great move.”
Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill captained the team for the first time this season, starting despite his hectic traveling schedule back from an international match with Australia last Tuesday.
“Team doctors after the game (in Australia) told me it was a risk (to play on Saturday),” Cahill said. “I think it was a good enough risk to take, because of the match today.
“I know it was a bit of a risk, but it was a calculated risk, and I’m happy that we got the right result.”
The Red Bulls had chances in the first half to score their first home goals, but misses from Luyindula and midfielder Jonny Steele meant the teams went into halftime goalless.
The second half began nearly the same way the first half did, with a couple of Red Bulls opportunities on goal. But the back four of Sheanon Williams, Jeff Parke, Ray Gaddis, and Okugo stayed compact and strong throughout the match for the Union, repelling nearly every New York attack.
But in the 55th minute, there was McCarty, flicking in a cross from Steele into the back of the net sending the crowd of 15,824 at Red Bull Arena to their feet in appreciation.
“You keep banging on the door long enough, and the ball’s going to go in for you,” McCarty said. “We created plenty of chances to walk out of here with three or four goals.”
Union manager John Hackworth went to the bench five minutes later, bringing in Casey and forward Andre Hoppenot for Sebastian Le Toux and Danny Cruz. The move paid dividends, with Casey heading in from six yards out in the 63rd minute, leveling the score and quieting the stadium.
But it was the introduction of Henry, just a few minutes earlier, that would help to bring the sound back in the stadium. Despite not being 100 percent, Henry’s 31 minutes on the pitch were enough to give the Red Bulls some confidence moving forward.
I thought we were playing well but not getting results,” Henry said. “All (the win) can give us right now is to breathe a bit better this week.”
Here are the match highlights: