Red Bulls Score Early, Knock Out Fire

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cup logoBradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan scored early first-half goals and led the New York Red Bulls into the second round of Major League Soccer‘s playoffs with a 4-0 win over the Chicago Fire in Bridgeview, Ill., on Wednesday night.

Daniel Royer added the clincher midway through the second half after goalkeeper Luis Robles withstood a sustained 20-25-minute stretch in which the Fire pushed forward and created several chances. Gonzalo Verón tacked on the finale in the 87th minute.

“We came with a game plan,” Wright-Phillips said. “I can’t compliment the boys enough. It was a real professional performance.”

The win sends the Red Bulls to the Eastern Conference semifinals against Toronto, which set a league record for points in a season with 69, breaking the Los Angeles Galaxy’s previous mark of 68 in 1998.

New York will host Toronto either Monday or Tuesday in the first leg of the conference semifinals before traveling to Canada for the second leg of the two-game, total-goals series.

It was only the third loss at home this season for Chicago, but the third in its last seven games.

The Fire had the first opportunity when Nemanja Nikolic sent a low cross into the Red Bulls penalty area that Tyler Adams had to clear away in the third minute, but the Red Bulls quickly control.

Four minutes later Damien Perrinelle played a chip into Wright-Phillips, who kept himself onside between Brandon Vincent and João Meira. His first touch appeared to get away from him, but Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson appeared tentative off his line and Wright-Phillips was able to get behind him and tap into an open net.

A little more than four minutes after that, Kljestan doubled the lead. Wright-Phillips played a ball wide to Adams, who played a low cross that the Red Bulls captain redirected with his left foot a step inside the six-yard box.

Chicago struggled to mount much of a threat for the rest of the half while the Red Bulls dominated possession and chances. But the Fire came out in the second half with a renewed energy, generating a chance a minute and a half in when former Red Bull midfielder Dax McCarty got a touch to deflect Djordje Mihailovic corner into Robles, who blocked the initial ball off his chest and then recovered to control.

Fire midfielder Matt Polster had a pair of shots and Mihailovic also had a chance where he was unable to make contact with the ball inside the area before Sean Davis was finally able to get a shot into Lampson in the 60th.

Chicago sent in Bastian Schweinsteiger, who had only played 19 minutes in the Fire’s previous seven games because of a thigh injury, for Mihailovic, who had to leave the game after injuring his right leg attempting a tackle on Adams.

Ten minutes later, Royer seemingly put the game out of reach. Davis was able to win the ball at midfield and sent it ahead to Wright-Phillips. He held it up for Royer, who exchanged passes with Davis before working his way into the middle of the area, spinning and scoring past Lampson inside the right post.

Verón, entering in his usual late-substitute role, added exclamation point as New York remained unbeaten in three games against Chicago this season with a second win.

For Chicago, it was a disappointing end to a season where it didn’t beat a team with a winning record after July 1.

The Red Bulls, too, struggled in the second half of the season, winning only two of their last 12 games, including the U.S. Open Cup final. But Wednesday night’s victory extended its unbeaten run to four with three wins.

“Without getting overboard, it was a good performance,” Kljestan said. “We stuck together. Toronto is a huge challenge, the best team in MLS history.

“We played on road with aggression. We told ourselves before the game, in the huddle, let’s not wait until we’re goal down before we start being aggressive.”