By RYAN TOLMICH
HARRISON, N.J. —With both time and a potential playoff spot ticking away by the second, the New York Red Bulls were in need of something special. Luckily for the Red Bulls, Lloyd Sam was happy to oblige.
The Red Bulls midfielder earned his side all three points with just minutes remaining by netting a 90th minute winner in Wednesday’s clash with D.C. United, earning the Red Bulls a 1-0 victory and a crucial three points that throws the team right back into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
With just minutes remaining in a contest that was dominated by the Red Bulls, a streaking Sam was found by defender Jameson Olave, whose through ball split a D.C. United defense that had remained so strong through the game’s opening 90 minutes. In all alone, Sam buried the ensuing shot, giving the Red Bulls a much needed escape with three points.
“I’m buzzing that (Olave) passed it to me,” Sam said of the finish. “I’m very happy. I’ve already gone to (Olave) and shook his hand and said well done.”
The first half’s pivotal moment came in the 35th minute, as D.C. United forward Fabian Espindola was sent off for a high tackle on Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty. Espindola, who scored 11 goals for the Red Bulls in 2013, pleaded his case to referee Mark Geiger, but was show a straight red, reducing the visitors to ten men, much to D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen’s dismay.
“To me, it’s not a good call,” Olsen said. “It’s a soccer play that happens all the time where you go in and Fabian plays with his heart and he goes in for challenges. It’s just poor. It just ruins the game. It’s just disappointing.
“In a game like this, against New York, that should be a good soccer game, a good back and forth rival game,” Olsen continued. “To not have it be that because of a bad call is frustrating and it’s tough to get over.”
For his part, McCarty tended to agree with Olsen’s assessment of the play, as the Red Bull midfielder admitted that he felt the call was a bit too far.
“I saw the replay and I think it’s harsh to be honest,” McCarty said. “For me, from the refs point of view you can see his studs are high, but I don’t think he’s looking at me. I don’t think his intent was to hit me. Maybe it looks worse than it is
“I don’t think it was malicious at all. It was one of those bang-bang plays where a referee has to make a decision and he made his decision.”
Following Espindola’s dismissal, the Red Bulls asserted themselves as the dominant side, as D.C. United sat back as a solid defensive unit, which frustrated the Red Bulls throughout the evening.
“When they go down to ten men before halftime, you’re sitting there thinking to yourself that we’re going to have a lot of the ball, but we aren’t going to have many clear cut chances because they’re so deep, so organized,” McCarty said. “Everyone knows their job. They’re not a flashy team, they just do a lot of things really well.”
Despite D.C.’s defense, the hosts created a slew of chances as the half winded down, with a trio of those chances belonging to MLS Golden Boot leader Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was eventually removed at halftime due to tightness in his right hamstring.
With Wright-Phillips absent for the entirety of the second half, the D.C. United defense stood strong, especially when it came to keeping an eye on Henry. The French forward was given little room to breathe, as the team leading assister-getter was repeatedly swarmed by the D.C. United trio of Sean Franklin, Nick DeLeon and Bobby Boswell on his favored left side.
Despite the tight marking, Henry did his best to create for the hosts, who were repeatedly rebuffed by the D.C. United defense. The former Arsenal star put together four shots in the second frame, the best of which was parried away by a sliding Bill Hamid in the 77th minute.
With Henry lurking from close range, the Hamid put forth a save-of-the-week candidate, sliding out to meet the Red Bulls forward before blocking the ball out with his back hand.
“I almost forget about Bill’s saves now,” Olsen said in praise of his goalkeeper. “That’s the biggest compliment I can give him.”
“He’s a great goalkeeper,” Henry said of Hamid. “He’s been doing it in this league for a long time. He was magnificent tonight.”
The D.C. United goalkeeper came up big yet again in the 70th minute by pushing away a close-range effort from Red Bulls midfielder Peguy Luyindula.
The attack was kickstarted by Sam, whose run towards the backline created space for Luyindula in the center of the box. Sam’s ensuing cross was lined up for a Luyindula shot on goal, but the Frenchman’s ensuing effort was pushed away by Hamid to keep the hosts off the board in what appeared to be just another off night for the Red Bulls.
The Red Bulls finally did earn their breakthrough, however, as Sam’s winner gave the Red Bulls a much-needed victory over their rivals.
“It did seem (that it wasn’t our night),” Sam said. “Once it got to the 90th minute, it seemed like we weren’t going to get a goal. Hamid has done this to us a few times actually. He always seems to play well against us but, it turned out to be our night.”
With the victory, the Red Bulls leapfrog the Columbus Crew and Philadelphia Union for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, which excited the already ever-smiling Sam.
“We know how big the points are right now, so we’ve got to keep going,” Sam said. “We needed that win. It feels great to get it. Look at the league table. We needed that win so bad. I’m looking forward to having a look at the table now.”
The Red Bulls now face a short turnaround with a trip to Philadelphia scheduled for Saturday. Meanwhile, D.C. United head to Jamaica on Tuesday to face Waterhouse FC in the CONCACAF Champions League. They then return to MLS action on Sept. 20, traveling to Chicago to take on the Fire.
Watch the match highlights: