HARRISON, N.J. — Less pressure in the playoff race didn’t mean less pressure on the pitch for the Red Bulls on Sunday night.
After a handful of results around the league Saturday helped the Red Bulls clinch a playoff berth before taking the field this weekend, the club kept its momentum moving forward, keeping the pressure on the Philadelphia Union to earn a 2-0 victory at Red Bull Arena.
Tom Barlow scored his third goal of the season in the 31st minute, taking advantage of an uncharacteristic mistake by Union goalie Andrew Blake to bury home the game’s first score. The Red Bulls sealed the victory off a counterattack in the fifth minute of second half stoppage time, as Daniel Royer sent home the final kick of the game for his 11th goal of the season.
“I don’t think the words that I start with here will do justice to the work the guys put in this week,” head coach Chris Armas said. “I think it caps off a really important, big week for us.”
The Red Bulls earned three points again after beating the Portland Timbers on the road Wednesday, giving the club 47 points for the season. That puts the club in a tight battle with DC United (48 points) and Toronto FC (46 points) for the fourth seed in the East, which is good for a home game in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs. The No. 4 seed was something that seemed unlikely after a road loss to Seattle put the Red Bulls in sixth in the East just a week ago.
“When you think about this team, what [losing to Seattle] does to you, you’ve lost a few games in a row, now it’s another one. To see them respond the way they did in Portland, to see the way the staff works more hours and puts in more, that’s impressive, and then to finish it off in a rivalry match with a good Philadelphia team, to shut them out and to win at home — this is a big week. Obviously, we make the playoffs, and maybe we’re playing these last few games better than we have all year in terms of controlling things.”
The home team peppered the Philadelphia defense with 17 shots, seven of them on target, and succeeded with their trademark high press for much of the evening, keeping Philadelphia from too many clean chances. Blake was mostly solid in goal for Philadelphia aside from the first goal, making five saves to keep his team in it, but several last-second clearances by the Red Bulls denied Philadelphia a chance to get on the board.
“Even though we’re in the playoffs, we still have statements to make,” said defender Tim Parker, a Hicksville graduate. “Most of the last couple months have been writing us off. Us getting into the playoffs was a little boost, but for us probably to get that result, and the one in Portland is obviously a big confidence booster.”
The Red Bulls put together a few decent chances early, but nearly gave up an opening goal in the 16th minute. With Philadelphia on the break, Luis Robles came close to the edge of his box to make a save on Fabrice-Jean Picault, but Picault controlled the rebound. The ball was sent to the center of the box for a trailing Alejandro Bedoya in front of a seemingly open net, but Aaron Long positioned himself perfectly to redirect a low shot from Bedoya away from the net and out of danger.
After failing to break through the Philadelphia defense over the first 30 minutes, the Red Bulls took advantage of one of Blake’s few mistakes to get on the board first. Carrying the ball toward the right edge of the box, Josh Sims sent a ball toward the goal that curled away from the target, but which forced Blake to come off his line to make a play. Blake couldn’t corral it, and Barlow finished his run into the center of the box to clean up the error, sending home a low drive from just outside the six-yard box.
“I’m just happy I was in the right place at the right time and happy to put it away,” Barlow said.
The Red Bulls had a few close calls in the second half, relying on some late clearances in the six-yard box to keep Philadelphia off the board. Parker made a key clearance in the 90th minute, falling back to get the ball out of the box during a mad scramble.
With the game all but over, a run on the counter by Bradley Wright-Phillips, who entered the game in the 61st minute, set up an open Royer, who slotted home the relatively easy second goal just before the final whistle.