By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON — Mike Petke had seen enough. The leaky defense. The lack of commitment. The late collapses. All of it.
So after the New York Red Bulls allowed two late goals in a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Fire last weekend, the coach turned the team’s training focus to defensive shape. Lose possession? Get 10 players behind the ball. Avoid counterattacks. Retain discipline.
In a 2-0 win at rival D.C. United on Saturday, the Red Bulls did it all. Sure, the class opener from Thierry Henry helped, as did defender Jamison Olave’s third tally of the season. And United’s attack doesn’t exactly have a lot of bite right now.
But on a day the Red Bulls lost the possession battle, they had hardly any trouble keeping the clean sheet. No mental errors equaled no goals conceded.
“I’m glad these guys took a bit of what we went over and took it to heart that we gave Chicago the game last weekend and that we didn’t want to come in here and do that,” Petke said. “If we were going to get beat tonight, it was because they were a better team.”
After opening the season with five of seven games on the road, New York stands at 2-3-2 entering back-to-back matches at Red Bull Arena. It’s a record that would be considerably better if the Red Bulls hadn’t squandered leads at Portland, San Jose and Chicago — and if United goalkeeper Bill Hamid hadn’t stood on his head during a scoreless draw last month at New York.
Considering the rigors of MLS road games, however, it’s a mark the Red Bulls certainly can live with.
“We’ve had some good games away from home that we didn’t finish well,” Henry said. “Hopefully this one can be like a breath of fresh air for us to see if we can build on it and do way better and try to go on a little run.”
At RFK Stadium on Saturday, Henry put his status as one of the world’s most accomplished strikers on full display in the 29th minute. Collecting the ball just outside the D.C. box, the Frenchman surveyed his options, seized upon the few feet of breathing room afforded to him by defender Chris Korb, and hit a bouncing shot that beat Hamid to the far post.
As Henry said, “Sometimes the ball hits the post, sometimes the goalkeeper saves it. Hamid is outstanding against us usually; he was again today. But the ball went in.”
Seven minutes later, Red Bulls playmaker Juninho’s swerving cross off a short corner kick found Brandon Barklage, whose header toward goal was redirected by Olave past Hamid.
From that point on, New York zeroed in defensively. For a last-place United squad with a 1-4-1 record and just two goals scored this season, cracking the Red Bulls proved to be too tall a task.
“From my standpoint, I never felt like they were a threat to score on us tonight,” said Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty, a former United captain. “D.C. has been very dangerous in the past, but for whatever reason I think they’re obviously going through a little bit of an offensive identity problem themselves. So for us, we wanted to feed off that.”
That the Red Bulls did. United winger Chris Pontius found little room to run — and when he did, New York held him in check. Halftime substitute Dwayne De Rosario couldn’t get going. Even Carlos Ruiz’s point-blank rebound attempt was denied by goalkeeper Luis Robles’ back.
When the final whistle blew, it marked the continuation of United’s misery and the conclusion of New York’s first truly complete game of 2013.
“The team obviously had made some mistakes in the past,” Olave said via a translator. “We just worked all week on the different mistakes, just talking about it, discussing it and focusing on the 90 minutes today.”