By Jim Hague
After getting off to a blistering start in his first season with the New York Red Bulls, scoring seven goals in the first five matches, Kenny Cooper tailed off a bit recently, failing to score a single goal in seven straight contests.
As the Red Bulls played their third home game in a week, Cooper knew he had to do something special, especially after the team decided to honor the memory of Jack Reyna, the 13-year-old son of former Red Bulls and U.S. National team captain Claudio Reyna, who died Thursday after a battle with cancer.
The team all donned black armbands with Jack Reyna’s name on it to pay tribute to the fallen teen.
Cooper wanted to do more.
“Claudio has always been a personal hero of mine,” Cooper said. “It’s obviously a very sad situation. I wanted to do something to pay tribute to Claudio’s son. Hopefully, I was able to honor him.”
Cooper did exactly that last Saturday, scoring two goals, his first scores since May 23, leading the Red Bulls to a 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union, a win that catapulted the Red Bulls (11-5-5, 38 points) into first place in the MLS Eastern Conference standings.
Cooper scored one goal in each half in a span of 15 minutes, both by using his head, something he rarely does.
“I don’t recall the last time I scored with a header,” said Cooper, who has 13 goals now, second in the MLS to San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski, who has 17. “But I have to give credit to my teammates. I was right outside the goal and the quality of the passes was perfect.”
The win also enabled the Red Bulls to remain undefeated at home this season, improving to 7-0-3. New York is the lone MLS team without a loss at home. Before the season, Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe said that he wanted to make sure his team held fort at home. They’ve done exactly that – and then some. It’s quite a feat to be unbeaten in your own building at the end of July.
“We had three games in eight days and came away with positive results,” Backe said. “We played those three games with basically the same team. I was very concerned and was waiting for the team to run out of gas. But they didn’t look out of shape. They were in good condition and only allowed one or two chances. I was very impressed with their shape.”
Cooper, who did not start in Wednesday’s game against Chicago, knocked home a header off a pass from rookie Connor Lade in the 43rd minute, then added another header off a fine feed from Thierry Henry in the 58th minute.
Cooper was asked if he started to question himself, going so long without a goal. His last goal came in a 1-1 tie with Chivas USA, a span of seven matches prior to Saturday.
“It’s something that I obviously was aware of,” Cooper said. “But I had to keep believing that it would eventually come. With this team, you have to remain confident that your teammates will create chances. I think it’s important to stay positive throughout with so many quality teammates around me. You saw the opportunities they created for me today.”
Backe wasn’t overly concerned about Cooper’s scoring drought. After all, the Red Bulls’ other top scorer, namely Henry, scored his first goal since April 28 when he scored the lone goal in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Chicago.
“With strikers, there are always going to be phases of the season when they don’t score,” Backe said. “But they’re on the pitch to score and they’ll get their chances. For Kenny to score two on headers is remarkable.”
Lade had two assists to aid the Red Bulls’ cause.
It was the second straight shutout victory for Bill Gaudette, who made two saves in place of injured starter Ryan Meara. Gaudette has started the last three RBNY matches and has recorded two wins and a tie.
The Red Bulls controlled most of the first half action, led by the diminutive, pesky Lade, who was all over the field, making his presence felt on both ends, despite his 5-foot-3 frame. Lade was causing havoc, throwing his tiny body all over the place and it was that relentless approach that led to the team’s first goal.
“I’m a small guy, so I’ve been a fighter all my life,” Lade said. “I try to work hard all the time. If that gets the other team ticked off, then so be it. I just try to come in and play tough. I’m still learning how to play midfield. It’s a relatively new position for me, so I’m just glad to contribute.”
Lade took a pass from Joel Lindpere and moved up the left flank. He then uncorked a perfect left-footed cross to Cooper, who headed it past Philadelphia net minder Zac MacMath for the 1-0 RBNY lead in the 43rd minute. It was the second assist on the season for the rookie Lade. Lindpere also received an assist on the goal. Cooper’s goal came one minute after he had a clear chance at a scoring opportunity, but was taken down in a collision with Union defender Carlos Valdes. However, no call was made.
Cooper had two prior chances to score. In the 20th minute, his right-footed blast from 25 yards out was stopped by MacMath and Sebastien Le Toux, playing against his former club, followed the shot, but his rebound attempt sailed over the crossbar.
In the 28th minute, Cooper had a left-footed try, but it was stopped by MacMath.
Philadelphia’s best scoring chance in the first half came when Josue Martinez got behind Red Bulls rookie defender Jonathan Borrajo in the 40th minute. Martinez exploded past Borrajo, making his first-ever MLS appearance, entering the game in the 16th minute when Brandon Barklage suffered a right hamstring strain, and fi red a shot that Gaudette stopped with his right arm.
Losing Barklage further hampered the Red Bulls’ back line, considering that All-Star Heath Pearce was out with a hamstring injury, along with Rafa Marquez and Jan Gunnar Solli.
Cooper extended the lead to 2-0 in the 58th minute, when he headed home a cross from Henry. Cooper got behind two Union defenders who thought he was offside, but no call was made. Lade was also an integral part of the second scoring play and received an assist, his second of the game and third of the season.
Backe was asked if he was pleased with his team’s standing.
“I still think we need to get better,” Backe said. “If we can keep our home record, then we’ll defi nitely get in the playoffs. We still need to be better defensively. That will happen when we get some people back.”
The Red Bulls return to action next Saturday night against the Montreal Impact in Montreal. They don’t return to Red Bull Arena until Friday, Aug. 10, when they take on Houston. They came through the three-game home stand with flying colors, winning two and tying one, collecting seven points and moving up the Eastern Conference standings. It’s turning into a season to remember with the Red Bulls, maybe the best in the club’s history.