The New York Red Bulls eked out a 1-0 win over rivals D.C. United on Sunday night in Harrison.
Whether you call him John Tolkin or JMi, his free-kick goal in the 88th minute was the deciding factor in the win. Besides that, New York only had a slow “dominating” performance on paper.

It is New York’s first MLS win since July 8 against the New England Resolution.

Since then, the team has lost twice and went on a Leagues Cup break.

This result comes with one of the biggest games in Major League Soccer history on the horizon next weekend.

A foul by United’s Jose Fajardo in the 87th minute gave New York a set piece just above the left corner of the penalty area. About 20 yards from the goal, Tolkin opted to go directly for DC’s goal and keeper Tyler Miller. The shot slightly arched and got past the wall, bouncing just before it reached the goal. Miller dove to his right, but the sneaking shot got past him and the right post.

Tolkin’s first goal of the MLS season is also one for the history books. At 21 years old (and 20 days), he is the youngest player in club history to score directly off a free kick.

It is also New York’s first goal from a free kick since Omir Fernandez did so in 2021.

“I saw the wall was a little bit inside, and the keeper was a little bit too far to my right, and I thought I could sneak it in there,” Tolkin told the media after the game.

“The grass was slick, so I was able to get that little bounce and, yeah, found the back of the net.”

New York came into Sunday’s match, the 100th meeting between the Atlantic Cup rivals, with three forwards in the starting XI. Elias Manoel, Dante Vanzeir, and Luquinhas. Dru Yearwood also replaced Frankie Amaya as a defensive midfielder.

Photo: Evan Yu/Getty Images

Early in the game, Vanzeir was the best thing New York had going. He had two shots that were off-target, but he was the main focal point for attacks. A 14th-minute shot from distance went wide when it looked like Vanzeir had options to pass around. But his best chance four minutes later nearly got the Red Bulls on the board.

A cross from the right side found him in front of Miller and the DC net. However, his redirect went high and over the crossbar.

The Belgian did not remain in the game for much longer. He left the game in the 28th minute after seemingly re-aggravating a hamstring injury. A play a few minutes early saw the striker go down, where a DC player inadvertently stepped on his leg. Despite running well, he walked over, said something to Troy Lesesne, and Tom Barlow was quickly subbed in.

Lesesne said the injury “doesn’t look severe” after the game. However, the team will continue to evaluate Dante going forward.

After that, and even into the second half, New York lacked bite on offense. The team outshot and unpossessed D.C. United. The visitors ended the match with four shots and none on target. On a similar sad note, the once feverish supporters of DCU failed to travel up I-95 in mass. Only a smattering of fans were in the away section in the northeast corner of the stadium. But back to on the field, DCU only looked good enough to earn a point. And that isn’t because they played RBNY well – it’s because New York looked like it couldn’t convert.

United was without Taxi Fountas, the 2022 all-star, who left the team after allegations of using a racial slur during practice. Instead, Gabriel Pirani made his debut for the visitors. The 21-year-old midfielder, on loan from Brazil, could not mask a simple fact. United’s offense needs more time to adjust to the loss of Fountas.

Another standout performance was Cameron Harper. The dual national moved up from the backline.

In past games, Coach Lesesne has run with a four-man defensive unit with him, Andrés Reyes, Sean Nealis, and John Tolkin. However, tonight the winger was noticeably playing farther up alongside Daniel Edelman.

His direct offensive performance was one wide in the 75th minute. Tom Barlow found him in the box with a pass coming from the right side. Harper’s chance glanced just outside the near post to the left of DC’s Tyler Miller.

However, his night was a full-field performance. Harper was noticeable in his passes around the top of the box. And his defensive abilities came into play. A 38th-minute chance by Gabriel Pirani was cut off before he could get a shot. Harper made a risky but clean challenge from behind, sliding to take the ball away.

Coach Lesesne was asked about Harper following the match by NYCSN.

“I was really happy with Cam for the 90 minutes,” Lesesne said.

“He plays as a right fullback; it’s really a high attacking position for us. And we like that because he’s dynamic one-on-one. And credit to him for being able to go into a right ten role because Kyle (Duncan) can come on and add another dimension.”

New York is still below both D.C. United and the playoff line with 29 points in 11th place. New York City FC’s loss and Charlotte FC’s inactivity means no one gained or kept pace with RBNY, though. Chicago Fire FC, who currently sit in 9th place, lost to Orlando City. The only negative was CF Montreal, who beat Toronto FC on Sunday night. Had they lost, New York would have jumped the Canadian side based on goal differential.

The hunt to make the playoffs for a 14th consecutive year has a huge challenge this weekend. Inter Miami CF, fresh off winning the Leagues Cup and playing in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, will be in Harrison. It will be Lionel Messi’s first Major League Soccer regular season match.

Team captain Sean Nealis knows what’s coming up. His team needs to have a strong final stretch of the season if they want to make the playoffs; that means getting results against whoever is on the other side of the field.

“They’ve been flying this past Leagues Cup; they’ve been killing it. They have a big match on Wednesday with the U.S. Open Cup, and we’re going to be ready for them on the weekend,” the captain stated. “We got a big challenge ahead, and we got to prep starting on Tuesday to get ready for that game. That should be a good one, should be a fun one, it should be kind of packed out, so everyone’s excited for that one.”

Photo: Evan Yu/Getty Images

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