If the New York Red Bulls are in a season-long slump in Major League Soccer, you wouldn’t have known it from their 1-0 win over perennial Barclays Premier League contenders Arsenal in a friendly here on Saturday night. Bradley Wright-Phillips bagged the lone goal. Ironic, perhaps, since his father, Ian Wright, was one of Arsenal’s greatest stars.
The New York side has struggled to garner any momentum at all in the season following their Supporters’ Shield win for the best record over the 2013 campaign — going 2-4-4 over their last 10 games and 5-6-9 overall. But they looked polished and composed as they took on one of Europe’s better sides.
A rain storm drenched the field just before kickoff, which was heralded by the unveiling of a tall tifo honoring Thierry Henry. The Red Bulls’ veteran superstar made his name with the Gunners during the 2000s, scoring a stupefying 174 goals. "Gunner. Red Bull. Legend," it read around a depiction of the Frenchman wearing half an Arsenal jersey and half a Red Bull one.
It was Henry’s night, of course. And one wondered if the entire night — and the so-called New York Cup — was contrived to produce a nice tribute to the 36-year-old, who probably isn’t long for the sport now (alternative cynic’s take: it was also a handy excuse for a nice payday for both clubs). Certainly, the many Arsenal fans residing stateside turned out in numbers not often seen at Red Bull Arena — and certainly made themselves heard more loudly than the badly outnumbered home fans.
"We’re at home in Red Bull Arena but it was almost an away match today — lot of Arsenal supporters," said NY Red Bulls manager Mike Petke after the match.
But if Henry was the headliner, a 17-year-old who has yet to feature in a league game, let alone score in one — and isn’t expected to this season either â was the object of uncommon interest, too. Gedion Zelalem was born in Germany and doesn’t hold an American passport — and nor, apparently, does any relative — but he could nevertheless be one of the brightest prospects in the American pipeline. Zelalem, who lived in Maryland from 2006 until Arsenal spotted and picked him up in 2013, could gain an American passport if his father secures one first, or so we’re told. That would make him a strong candidate for a future on the United States men’s national team, if he lives up to the immense potential predicted for him.
Zelalem, played out of position out on the wing, rather than in his preferred central midfield role, produced little of note. But around him, a lively game unfolded. Henry got a fat chance in the 4th minute, when he was played through by Lloyd Sam. But goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny pushed his finish wide. At the other end, Santi Cazorla curled a shot just wide. And then Wright-Phillips got a great look but failed in the face of goal as well.
For all the Red Bulls’ struggles and inconsistencies during their MLS campaign, they looked sprightly and strong, pressing and harrying the Gunners all over the place early on. They broke through in the 32nd minute. Henry swung a corner at the far post, which was headed back across goal by Ibrahim Sekagya for Wright-Phillips to poke home.
Henry pushed his team on throughout, as he got extra-agitated today. He dropped deep and wide to help distribute the ball and wasn’t shy about voicing his many displeasures at faulty plays — not that he ever is. Perhaps the proximity to the caliber of supporting cast he once enjoyed doubled his frustrations with his current one. He got a loud ovation when he came off in the 54th minute regardless.
Chances were sparse for New York after that but Arsenal, in their preseason, lacked the sharpness to punish any mistakes. Abou Diaby scored for Arsenal early in the second half but had strayed offside and so his rare tally was disallowed. In their clean sheet, the Red Bulls were helped a great deal by the ever-reliable Luis Robles in goal, who made a series of point-blank saves.
"It’s our first game, I believe that physically it was a bit too high for us." admitted Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. "Some of the players came back last Monday and they had to play today a game that was physically too high a level. It was not ideal."
The same couldn’t be said for the NY Red Bulls, however.
"There was some very good play from us," Petke said after the win. "Especially in the first half from our counter. This was one of the best-passing teams in the world and we were patient, sat back and countered to exploit. We did some good things. It was good to see some things that we need to improve on that we did well today."
And so the Red Bulls hung on in a sluggish second half and earned just their sixth win of the year. Too bad it didn’t count.