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PRESEASON: Red Bulls rebound, defy odds by beating non-collegiate team

On a rainy night in Jacksonville, Florida, the New York Red Bulls defeated the Philadelphia Union, 2-1, at EverBank Field. The result follows the team’s first preseason game loss to Florida Gulf Coast University.

In front of a few hundred fans, Lloyd Sam enjoyed an effective first half performance by scoring the first goal and assisting on the game-winner for a noticeably energetic Thierry Henry. The lone Union goal was scored by the once-loved, American “Chicharito”, Jack McInerney.

Mike Petke deployed an interesting starting lineup for his team’s first game against professional competition. Familiar names were joined by two newcomers, Armando and Bobby Convey, who both started in defense, at center and left back, respectively.

The debutantes demonstrated rust as well as some decent play. Armando rarely cleared the ball past halfway, instead choosing to play out of trouble, which garnered mixed results. Next to him, Convey was generally solid defensively.

The standard 4-4-2 that became the default formation last season again returned, however, the midfield resembled a diamond more than a flat four. Peguy Luyindula, sporting one less eight on his jersey, played in front of Dax McCarty, who once again manned the holding defensive midfield role.

The two central midfielders were flanked by Sam and Johnny Steele on the right and left. The most curious tactical move made by Petke and staff was to pair Tim Cahill with Henry as the two forwards.

Surprisingly, Cahill was often the farthest forward player as Henry dropped deep to play make from midfield. In fact, “dropping deep” is a modest way of describing Henry’s performance, as he found pockets of space all over the pitch. Uncharacteristically as well, the Frenchman repeatedly harassed the Union players while in possession and pressured his opponents well into his own half, causing multiple turnovers.

Was Henry’s play indicative signs of a renewed desire or just a purposeful tactic to build fitness, knowing he is only playing one half? Either way, he looked the sharpest player besides the Union’s new acquisition, Vincent Nogueira and his forward partner, Cahill.

The Australian dominated aerially against Okugo and Marquez (a rookie out of DIII soccer I must note) and kept possession as a target for splitting passes to his feet. He even found himself running onto a couple through balls, most notably on a pass by Henry in the 26th minute, leading to a left-footed shot that just missed the bottom corner.

The first goal of the game came in the eighth minute, off one of Cahill’s flicked headers for an onrushing Sam. The English winger, who looked physically fitter and leaner, was able to take multiple touches to drive inside the Philly box, finishing low across Zac MacMath in goal. Afterwards, the Red Bulls exerted domination over their close rivals, as the Union’s midfield duo of Maurice Edu and Brian Carroll struggled to impact the game.

The equalizer came in bizarre fashion in the 27th minute. Robles was supposedly whistled for holding onto the ball for too long, leading the referee to award an indirect free kick inside the 18. Nogueira touched the ball into McInerney’s path for him to unleash fury past the diving keeper. The young striker arguably could have had a hat-trick as he missed two further chances in the fifth and 43rd minute marks.

Not deterred by the gimme goal, the Red Bulls found the game winner less than 10 minutes later. Cahill once again flicked a pass onto Sam’s run. This time, Sam laid off a perfect ball for a wide open Henry to slot home first time, right footed, into the bottom corner.

A second half saw no further goals as sloppy play, which is common in preseason, became rampant. Both sides made wholesale substitutions so that their reserve players and trialists could impress. The enigmatic Eric Alexander, coming off a cameo appearance for the US, played well from a central midfield role.

Other reserve players like Marius Obekop, Ruben Bover and Andre Akpan did not demonstrate any major improvement to suggest their roles might increase this season. Chris Duvall and Eric Stevenson appeared busy and eager, but they too made no substantial impact.

More potentially worrying signs included Ibrahim Sekagya ceding far too many turnovers and Meara, Miazga and Lade not getting any time. No injury report on the trio was released before the match. Having said all that, Amando Moreno looked sharper and cleaner with his touches as he played simple and effective in a 10 minute period.

Overall, fans should be optimistic about that first half performance. Henry and company exhibited a hunger to pressure the Philly defense and win back possession. Besides the two goals, the outstanding play of the game started when both Henry and Cahill played defense inside their own half in the 13th minute.

After regaining control, a few quick touches led to Henry finding Steele sprinting into the vacated space by the forwards. Sam too took advantage of the space, but the move unfortunately broke down.

Petke and Roxbourgh preached the maintenance of retaining a core group to lead the team into 2014. The lack of turnover compared to last preseason is a welcome sight. Hopefully this will lead to more cohesion come the season opener in Vancouver.

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