MEN of the Match
For his 65th minute winner and first career MLS goal, NYRB rookie Tom Barlow was singled out as Man of the Match.
In truth, several Red Bulls would have been worthy recipients of the honor. Michael Murillo, Amro Tarek, Daniel Royer, and Sean Nealis all merited consideration. Had I been asked I would have given the nod to fullback Kemar Lawrence for his high octane defensive work throughout.
But MoM or not, the candid and ebullient Lawrence was clearly the star of the post-game.
The Jamaican international’s locker is the first inside the door at the home team’s room at Red Bull Arena. With the media packed tightly around Lawrence on Sunday night, egress and access became a problem for his teammates, including injured striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was seen politely making his way through the thicket, balancing a tray of food as he went on his way.
Lawrence came into this matchup with Atlanta hyped to avenge last season’s playoff loss, which he sat out injured. Lawerence played Sunday’s match like a man with a point to prove and his intensity was met by Atlanta’s Hector “Tito” Villalba, with the two battling for 90 minutes and then some, as the Atlanta man attempted to get at Lawrence after the final whistle had blown.
Stationed in front of his locker, Lawrence was practically bursting to say his piece. “I told you I was gonna, right. I told you, I’m gonna win, right? I’m gonna win it for my team. And we went out there we did,” Lawrence began.
And he was just getting started. “I told you, I’ve been carrying around a lot of anger because I got injured last year. And I missed out on the biggest games ever for my team, the Conference Finals. And I just had that feeling. If I was on the field last year, we would have won that game. So I know I had the worst offseason last year knowing I was injured. So getting back from injury and facing these guys, when I’m getting really my full fitness level. It was just amazing. And the only thing on my mind was to repay them for how my team felt. I felt that we did that today.”
Lawrence and Villalba were involved in a late-game incident that led to the post-match fracas when Lawrence stood over the prone Atlanta forward and exulted. Atlanta got a free kick out it, one that could have mattered as Red Bulls clung to a 1-0 lead.
Atlanta took offense at Lawrence’s exuberance, with team captain Michael Parkhurst telling High Press Soccer afterward that, “we were upset with how Lawrence stood over Tito at the end of the game, and, you know, barked at him. I just don’t think there’s a need for that.”
Villaba also expressed similar feelings, but when word was relayed to Lawrence that Atlanta felt that he had been disrespectful, the Jamaican chuckled. “Lack of respect? No, honestly I can tell you what I said, I said, bring your best. I said, come on, bring your best. I see you bring your best against every guy, week in and week out, I want your best. That’s what I said. So if he feels like that’s disrespectful, that’s his fault.”
Exciting match from two emerging rivals
The match itself was a high-energy affair with New York flying out of the traps, perhaps in a bid to wear down Atlanta, who played and won Wednesday night in Vancouver.
Atlanta’s 1-0 win over the Whitecaps was the fifth on the trot for the defending MLS Cup Champions and the club’s fifth shutout in a row.
Atlanta coach Frank de Boer knew his team had missed an opportunity to topple the Red Bulls while playing with a man advantage from the 35th minute when Tim Parker was shown the line for pulling Josef Martinez and “denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.”
“Everybody is very disappointed to get not even a more out of it. And yeah, the time was right for three points,” de Boer noted, adding, “it’s always difficult to win here.”
The United coach didn’t seem to be looking for excuses. Rather, de Boer seemed forthright when asked about possible fatigue. “100%? It’s fatigue, I gave him two days off, because we have to be physically but also mentally, ready for Salt Lake, on Friday. And, you know, I saw the spirit was there, you know, they wanted but maybe the body and the mind, you know, sometimes will not do what you think will want to do.”
The big moments in the match came down to the red card to Parker and the New York goal. New York’s impressive depth, not an easy thing to build in a salary capped MLS, was key The Red Bulls started without USMNT center back Aaron Long and 35 minutes in his partner, Parker, was shown red.
Sean Nealis was introduced and he would be instrumental in the game’s lone goal. Red Bulls coach Chris Armas praised the substitute for his courage to make a play. “Sean Nealis drives with the ball on that play from center back and he makes a really good pass.”
Nealis set up Royer, who hit a brilliant cross that Barlow somehow managed to head back across Brad Guzan’s goal and into the net for what turned out to be the winner.
It was exciting, it was a bit nasty, and it seemed like the beginning of a rivalry sparked by genuine dislike.
De Boer doesn’t seem to mind. “Yeah, but it’s nice, you know, to have that kind of vitality between two teams, you know, because, yeah, that makes the sports. Fun, I think to watch, you know, they’re eager to win against each other, and they will do everything to win it from each other. Of course, there always has to be respect, of course, on both sides. But yeah, this is what you want. This is what you want to experience every week.”
And what does Lawrence think of the rivalry?
“I feel like this is like on the top of the list. I feel like there’s really a rivalry there.”
And how does Lawrence feel about his battles with Villalba? “Every now and then,” a smiling Lawrence began, “you’re going to find one player that you don’t like. You know, a lot of guys around the league like me,” but the New York fullback concluded with a shrug, “I can’t please everyone.”