HARRISON, N.J. – The tactical change was there, but the goal wasn’t.
Philadelphia fell to their regional rival on Thursday night, the Red Bulls clinching a playoff spot through a 1-0 shutout.
Union manager Peter Nowak rolled the dice on the road, handing 16-year-old Zach Pfeffer his second start in a Union shirt. The teenage midfielder filled the gap left by Veljko Paunovic, who was unavailable for the season finale with a hamstring strain.
Opting for a more defensive shape, Nowak decided to use Amobi Okugo and Brian Carroll as twin defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
“We had guys who can really play the ball to the feet and try to spread it out,” Nowak explained after the match. “We had Sebastien Le Toux and Justin Mapp with their speed up top as well. We didn’t have that good fluidity throughout the game. It was too easy for [New York] to come back and cut the passing lines for us, especially after the goal. It’s very easy to go into a shell and counter, but in the second half we did better. I think we needed to do more to push the ball.”
Pfeffer was used centrally on a midfield line that also included Mapp and Michael Farfan. Le Toux once again played as a lone striker.
The Union had trouble moving the ball against New York’s 4-4-2, which included talented winger Joel Lindpere on the left, and Dax McCarty on the right. The Red Bulls squeezed the field with veterans Rafa Marquez and Teemu Tainio, denying service to Le Toux for much of the night. Pfeffer had a solid look on goal before halftime, but faced a tough task going up against New York’s experienced central midfielders.
“They’re a pretty big team physically, they have good technical ability as a team, good technical players,” said Pfeffer. “But they’re physical, and for a small player like myself, you try to outthink them, to play quicker and avoid the contact. That’s what I tried to do. It worked out well at times, but I got bumped off the ball other times.”
With star striker Thierry Henry suspended, New York pushed winger Dane Richards into a more advanced role, pairing the Jamaican international with natural striker Luke Rodgers. The Red Bulls were dangerous down the flanks and through the center as well.
“They kept a pretty good shape,” said Mapp. “When they picked off balls, they had pace up front with Richards and Rodgers. They kind of took us out of our game in the first half, and consequently got the goal early. I think we started better in the second half. It was a more even game, but we weren’t able to get that goal.”
Nowak scrapped the 4-2-3-1 at halftime and brought Okugo and Pfeffer out of the game. Freddy Adu was inserted centrally, and Dwanny Mwanga returned to action as the second striker in a 4-1-3-2 shape.
“It gave us two up front,” added Mapp. “And bringing on Freddy as well, he’s another technical player, so it gave us more options. Brian [Carroll] still did a good job in the middle. It gave us a little more going forward, but unfortunately we just couldn’t break them down.”
Philadelphia managed seven shots in the second half, but failed to find the equalizer. Le Toux’s untouched free kick in the 67th minute appeared to bring the game level, but the goal was waved off after Carlos Valdes was ruled to be offside.
The addition of Roger Torres in the 70th minute gave the Union another offensive push, but New York’s defense was up to the task.
“I think we did a better job defensively as a unit [in the second half],” said center half Danny Califf. “We sat back a little bit more and denied them space. I think in the first half, we were trying to press them too high on the field, and they were getting numbers deep, not only their two center backs, but Marquez and Tainio were dropping deep, so they were able to get the ball and spread us out and exploit the big field. I think we played a bit naive.
"In the second half, we played well with our backs to wall and we came out with a more intelligent game, but also just more effort and more push to get that goal.”
Unfortunately for the Union and their 1,200 traveling fans, that goal never came.