File Photo: Vera / DailyHarrison.com
HARRISON – It’s called using your head in a soccer game. Just ask New York Red Bulls’ striker Kenny Cooper if he’s one to use his noggin. It’s definitely a rare occurrence.
However, before Saturday’s game with the Philadelphia Union at Red Bull Arena, Cooper was definitely using his head _ but not on the field.
Cooper hadn’t scored a goal in almost two months, but he knew he had to do something special Saturday, especially since he was playing with a heavy heart.
Former Red Bulls captain Claudio Reyna’s 13-year-old son, Jack, died Thursday after a battle with cancer. Cooper wanted to have a special game to honor the memory of Reyna’s son.
“Claudio has always been a personal hero of mine,” said Cooper, who scored two goals, both on headers, to lead the Red Bulls to a 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union Saturday afternoon. “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 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 victory enabled the Red Bulls (11-5-5, 38 points) to take first place in the MLS Eastern Conference standings, moving past Sporting Kansas City, which was slated to play host to New England later Saturday night. Sporting KC currently has 36 points. Philadelphia dropped to 6-10-2 overall.
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.
Cooper, who did not start in Wednesday’s game against Chicago, knocked home a header off a pass from rookie Connor Lade in the 43rdminute, 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 40thminute. 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 fired a shot that Gaudette stopped with his right arm.
“We had some chances and played some good soccer, but we were just off by a split second,” said Philadelphia interim team manager John Hackworth, who took over the coaching reins last month. “They were really good at executing on crosses. We made poor runs, poor service and that was the difference.”
The Union played without forward Freddy Adu, who did not accompany the team to New Jersey for what Hackworth deemed a “team matter.”
“Freddy’s a fantastic player, but he wasn’t here today,” Hackworth said. “We can debate it if we missed him or not. But we just didn’t make the play when we had the chance. It was our ninth game in 27 days and we didn’t have our normal energy.”
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.
The Union really didn’t muster any legitimate scoring chances in the second half.
“Getting the third pass evaded us,” Hackworth said. “That’s what hurt us.”
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.