NY salvages dignity, maybe season
HARRISON, N.J. -- On the slippery turf glistening below the unforgiving bright lights of Red Bull Arena, onetime thoroughbred athlete Thierry Henry galloped toward his friend David Beckham. It took 20 paces at a top speed that's been compromised since the New York Red Bulls striker has waded into his 30s. But when Henry caught up to the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder, dallying on the ball in his own half, Henry plowed through him from Beckham's blind side, sending the Brit straight up into the air and the ball careening out of bounds. Beckham flashed a broad smile after landing, glancing at his longtime rival, with whom he'd shared two tellingly tight hugs before the game. But Henry, crashing into the Galaxy bench before darting back onto the field, didn't smile back. Never once did he break from the icy glare of his game face.
"It's always special to play against Thierry," Beckham said after the game. "He's a good friend, a great professional and a great player."
Speaking from the opposite locker room, Henry struck an entirely different tone, much like he had on the field. "We are friends, before the game or after," he said. "But when the game is on, the game is on."
It became apparent early Tuesday night that Beckham and Henry were not friends. League titans Galaxy and the Red Bulls played a game vital to both -- the Red Bulls trying to solidify a tenuous spot in the postseason and the Galaxy hoping to clinch the Supporters' Shield, which is awarded to the team with the most points in the regular season. These era-defining players may have forged a friendship throughout more than a decade of competition at the high end of the English Premier League and at the international level, but none of that counted now.
Even if Henry readily acknowledged that the Galaxy are the better team, the Red Bulls gutted out a 2-0 win against the league's stingiest defense on the strength of superior talent and willpower in a manner elusive throughout a mostly languid season. For the most part, the Galaxy played more fundamentally sound soccer despite the loss, moving better and passing more crisply.
But the spirited Red Bulls scored in the 32nd minute when striker Luke Rodgers volleyed the ball into the goal from close range, after a fine save by L.A. goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts off a Jan Gunnar Solli header on a corner kick. Then, in the 59th minute, Henry masterfully flipped the ball over Ricketts to score New York's second goal. Henry had been positioned to score by a precise long ball from the beleaguered Rafa Marquez, salvaging not only another underwhelming game for the much-booed Mexican, but perhaps his team's entire season. The Red Bulls also had a half-dozen other good chances, too, hitting the post twice.
It should be said that the Galaxy were without star forwards Landon Donovan (injured) and Robbie Keane (international duty) and were only dangerous on Beckham's set pieces, invariably seeking out the head of 6-foot-5 central defender Omar Gonzalez.
And by the 86th minute, with the Galaxy's fate clearly sealed, Beckham wasn't smiling at Henry any longer. When Henry took his time putting the ball out of play after an opponent went down injured, Beckham glared and barked something at him that was unintelligible from the sidelines. Safe to say: It wasn't friendly.
After the final whistle, New York looked not exuberant but relieved. There was hope yet, all was not lost.
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The Red Bulls had worked hard at preparing for this game. Practice had taken on a more serious tenor than before. "There's definitely a noticeable difference in training sessions," said defender Tim Ream. "Guys get after it a little bit harder, even though it's late in the year." Asked why it had taken the team so long to kick into high gear, Ream could offer no better explanation than this: "Our backs being up against the wall and needing every point that we can possibly get."
After a decrepit 20-game slide from April 30 through Sept. 17, when the Red Bulls won just twice, the team finally seems likely to make the playoffs. New York (43 points) sits in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with two games left in the regular season: away on Oct. 15 at Sporting Kansas City (first place, 45 points) and home on Oct. 20 versus the Philadelphia Union (second place, 44 points). If the Red Bulls can replicate Tuesday night's form, New York might even go into the playoffs in a position of strength.
If New York takes the requisite points from Sporting and the Union, it will place among the top three in the East and avoid the play-in games that involve the four cross-conference wild-card teams. Henry & Co. even have a chance of winning the division outright for a second year running -- a thought that was unfathomable even a month ago.
"I think we've put it to bed now," said the talismanic Rodgers of the team's woes. "We've gotten some wins, some really important wins, and it's coming at the right time."
New York is even thinking about a deep run into the playoffs. "I think we can make a run," Rodgers said. "I feel as though we've hit form at the right time, and I've got a sneaky little feeling that something might happen good. And the team that hits form last has won the [MLS] Cup the last two years, and there's no reason we can't go and do it."
"If we are in the playoffs," coach Hans Backe said cautiously, "I definitely think we will be a threat."
If the Red Bulls continue to play as they did Tuesday night, come what may, they won't be making any new friends.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.