Red Bulls finding new attacking heights at perfect time as 1st round of MLS Playoffs await

Red Bulls Tolkin Charlotte FC
John Tolkin (left) celebrates his goal during Wednesday’s 5-2 victory over Charlotte FC (Photo courtesy of New York Red Bulls)

HARRISON, N.J. — The most glaring weakness through most of the New York Red Bulls’ 2023 season was that they couldn’t consistently find the back of the net. 

Without their leading scorer from last year, Lewis Morgan, who is sidelined who sidelined most of the year with a hip injury, one of Major League Soccer’s best defenses had little support. In their first 29 MLS matches of the season, which included the exit of head coach Gerhard Struber and the promotion of Troy Lesesne in May, New York scored just 25 times — that’s 0.86 goals per game.

Call it desperation, chalk it up to things finally settling in with Lesesne at the helm, but something since then has clicked. 

With their playoff hopes on life support, the Red Bulls’ attack woke up. They hung five on DC United on Sept. 23 to spark a furious rally of four wins in their last five matches to grab the No. 8 seed and top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, scoring 11 goals in those victories.

In Wednesday night’s Wild Card match against Charlotte FC, the offense exploded once again in a 5-2 victory, sparked by Elias Manoel’s hat trick — the first-ever in Red Bulls postseason franchise history and just the sixth in league history — to clinch a first-round best-of-three matchup with the East’s No. 1 seed, FC Cincinnati.

That makes 16 goals in their last six MLS matches. They scored 15 goals in their previous 15 matches leading up to this recent stretch.

“We feel more focused,” Manoel said. “We know that we want to do on those finals that are coming because every single game is a final now, right? We are focused on these now.”

Elias Manoel Red Bulls Charlotte FC
Elias Manoel celebrates his first of three goals during the Red Bulls’ 5-2 Wild Card win over Charlotte FC on Wednesday night at Red Bulls Area. (Photo courtesy of the New York Red Bulls)

They hung three in the first half alone. Manoel was played in twice by perfectly placed passes into the Charlotte box to set up the chances. His clinical open-play finishes sandwiched a brilliant free-kick tally from John Tolkin, who had two assists on the night.

Tom Barlow tallied the fourth just seven minutes after Charlotte pulled one back, tapping in a pinpoint cross from Tolkin while unmarked at the front of Charlotte’s goal. Manoel then clinched his hat trick when he converted a breakaway down the left wing.

“We create a lot of chances,” Barlow said. “Earlier in the year we were struggling, a lot of chances weren’t falling for us. That’s the way the game goes sometimes. Recently, I feel like we’ve been getting a few chances and really punishing teams. So it felt good to put up five and hopefully we keep it going.”

While Lesesne wasn’t happy with the way his team started out the second half, regressing in their defensive duties to provide a glimmer of hope for Charlotte, the Red Bulls’ new-found attacking opulence with their usually resolute defense makes them a dangerous opponent for Cincinnati. The first leg of the series from Ohio is Sunday night.

“It seemed like we were gelling really well with stuff we’ve been working on quite a bit, getting out in transition and trying to put teams away,” Barlow said. “So, it was good to see it pay off.”

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