Justin Braun, relegated to the sidelines following preseason injuries and indifferent form that followed, made a major statement Sunday evening as Chivas USA pulled off the biggest upset of the Major League Soccer campaign.
Only it wasn't much of an upset.
The Goats, whose aggressive possession game is quickly making a big impression across the league, set up a showdown with the Galaxy in next weekend's SuperClasico with a 3-2 thriller over New York in Harrison, N.J. They were the better side a lot of the game, dominating big swaths of action, then relying on yeoman's efforts in the back when the Red Bulls' immense class shined through.
Braun scored a hat trick, the first in club history -- each goal providing Chivas (3-3-3) a one-goal advantage -- to define a sensational, box-to-box performance that coach Robin Fraser called a “coming-out party” for the 24-year-old striker.
“Justin was tremendous,” said Fraser, who inserted Braun into his lineup for suspended forward Marcos Mondaini. “I thought all night long he was just a real presence on the attacking end of the field. He ran a lot of things down; he was obviously very efficient in front of the goal. I think for him it’s great. It’s good for him, for his confidence. …
“You have a performance like that, you certainly make a statement for yourself. ”
It's a statement for Chivas, too -- not only knocking off perhaps MLS's best side, and doing it at Red Bull Arena, but with an offensive explosion few could have imagined. New York (4-2-3), the Eastern Conference's leader, had conceded just three goals in its first eight games. Braun had three by the 56th minute.
“This is definitely huge for me,” Braun told ESPN Los Angeles after the game. “I've always wanted to score a hat trick in MLS. It's a big moment for me. I've been in a little slump mostly, so I was happy to get the first one. The other two were just gravy.”
The first, in the sixth minute, was a beauty, a blast from just above the box on the left to the far-post netting. He got the second in the 21st minute, toe-poking past Red Bulls goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul after Ante Jazic did great work to keep Heath Pearce's free kick alive. And the winner came in the 56th, a tap-in after Coundoul pushed Alejandro Moreno's blast off the left post and across the goalmouth.
They were the first three goals this season for Braun, who led Chivas with nine last year.
Thierry Henry scored his fifth goal of the season, a splendid strike, to erase Chivas' first lead, and Dwayne De Rosario converted a penalty kick to pull New York even a second time after Pearce fouled Luke Rodgers moments after Braun's second.
Goats goalkeeper Dan Kennedy had to make big saves on Joel Lindpere in the 18th minute -- the Latvian winger expertly pulled down a long cross with his left foot, maybe the most impressive moment in a match filled with good things -- and on De Rosario in the 42nd. Rodgers scored on a bicycle kick while falling in the 72nd, but he was clearly offside.
Chivas was superb at the back when it counted, especially Ben Zemanski, who stepped into the middle when right back Michael Lahoud, returning from a concussion, had a relapse after heading away a line-drive cross. Lahoud departed in the 30th minute, Zarek Valentin moved from the middle to the right, and Zemanski moved to the back from the right-midfield slot.
Zemanski made the same move last week after Andy Boyens' red card and was pivotal in nine-man Chivas holding Real Salt Lake without a goal until the closing minutes.
A quick look at Chivas' victory:
BEST PLAYER: Braun looks so gawky, seems so awkward, and that often seems to be an asset -- he doesn't always do what he's supposed to do, and sometimes that leads to something special. But there's something else going on with the big striker from Utah, with his movements and his instincts and the things he's seeing that he couldn't see before.
We see flashes of this from time to time, a sustained vision on occasion, but Braun looked brilliant for nearly a full hour Sunday, and it was something to behold. He was all over the field, making defensive plays -- the sequence on the first goal began when he made a takeaway in front of Chivas' box, ending a stretch of extended Red Bulls pressure -- linking teammates, fueling a quick-passing game up top that dizzied New York's backline at times.
Add in the goals, and it's among the finest individual performances in MLS this season.
BEST GOAL: Braun's first was a real gem and will contend for Goal of the Week in MLS. He tracked down the ball on the left flank, turned against Jan Gunnar Solli and caught a sliver of space between the Red Bulls' right back and winger Dane Richards to accelerate through.
Two nifty touches sent Braun past Solli and presented an open shot, and he bent it inside the far post.
Close behind, or perhaps equal, was Henry's equalizer. Rafa Marquez floated a ball from Red Bulls territory over Valentin, who was pushed too far forward, and onto Henry's path at the top of the box. Henry, of course, finished clinically inside the left post.
BIGGEST STRUGGLE: Lahoud was so happy to be back from a concussion, and now it looks like he's starting from scratch.
Chivas' right back, with the first team after missing the previous three and a half games, headed away a sharp Marquez corner kick in the 24th minute, and it was immediately obvious that something wasn't right. Lahoud was in turmoil, looked lost, and referee Alex Prus checked in on him before letting play continue.
Lahoud plugged along, but he headed the ball twice more five minutes later. Neither was the velocity of the Marquez cross -- both were soft, looping balls from close range -- but he went down afterward and was quickly lifted.
The protocol for players with concussions is more stringent this year, and players must be without symptoms for a full week before they may return to training. Then there's a neurological exam to complete. Even in the best circumstances, Lahoud is unlikely to be ready for the SuperClasico.
WORTH NOTING: Forward Chris Cortez, who signed Sunday with the Goats, made his MLS debut in the second half, coming on for Braun in the 69th minute. He picked up his first MLS yellow card just 11 minutes later. … This was the first victory by a West Coast team in the East this season. … Only one of eight Eastern Conference sides won this week: New England. The East's cumulative record: 1-5-5.
FINAL JUDGMENT: “This group is unbelievably motivated,” Fraser said. “They have tremendous character. If you look at this season so far, some of the results we’ve had, the effort with which we’ve played, they’re extremely motivated and a focused group. They’re very much concentrating on getting better and better every week and finding a way to get results. Tonight was a prime example of a team that gutted out a result.”
NEXT: Saturday vs. Galaxy at Home Depot Center (Carson), 7 p.m. (ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes)
Red Bull Arena (Harrison, N.J.)
New York Red Bulls 2, Chivas USA 3
C -- Justin Braun 6
NY -- Thierry Henry (Rafa Marquez) 21
C -- Justin Braun (Ante Jazic, Heath Pearce) 31
NY -- Dwayne De Rosario pen. 35
C -- Justin Braun 56
New York Red Bulls: Bouna Coundoul; Jan Gunnar Solli, Rafa Marquez, Tim Ream, Roy Miller (Stephen Keel, 89); Dane Richards (Juan Agudelo, 71), Teemu Tainio (Mehdi Ballouchy, 71), Dwayne De Rosario, Joel Lindpere; Luke Rodgers, Thierry Henry.
Chivas USA: Dan Kennedy; Michael Lahoud (Mariano Trujillo, 30), Zarek Valentin, Heath Pearce, Ante Jazic; Ben Zemanski, Simon Elliott, Nick LaBrocca, Jorge Flores (Francisco Mendoza, 84); Justin Braun (Chris Cortez, 69), Alejandro Moreno. Unused subs: Victor Estupiñan, Gerson Mayen, Zach Thornton, Michael Umaña.
Yellow cards: Henry 62, Cortez 81.
Referee: Alex Prus. Att.: 16,365.