Kyle Duncan and Hassan Ndam (left) defend against Chicago Fire FC’s Georgios Koutsias during a Major League Soccer regular season game on September 30, 2023 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey (CREDIT: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The New York Red Bulls’ playoff hopes took a critical hit on Saturday night. A red card to Hassan Ndam and subsequent Georgios Koutsias sealed the 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire. But a lack of finishing allowed New York to reach that point.

“First half, really good first half. I felt like we were on top of the game. Created momentum, created chances but again needed a couple more clear-cut chances,” Head coach Troy Lesesne told media after the match. “The second half, you know, I think that we didn’t really settle into the game. It’s almost like we were playing the game in the middle of the field, and that’s obviously not what the first half looked like. So we need to be able to create a little bit more sustained attacks higher up the field at the beginning of the second half, which kind of led to like a 50/50-type game, and that’s clearly not what the intent was.”

In a must win game Tom Barlow joined Elias Manoel up top in the Red Bulls starting XI. Luquinhas played behind them as a third forward. Omir Fernandez, Daniel Edelman, and Frankie Amaya all served in the midfield. Finally with Sean Nealis serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation Hassam Ndam jumped into the center back role. He joined Andres Reyes. Wingers were John Tolkin and Kyle Duncan.

The latter had a stellar game on the right side of the field. While not a return to his pre-2021 play the defender worked multiple plays up the wings. His connected with Luquinhas and Frankie Amaya tested the Chicago defense early on.

Chicago goalkeeper Chris Brady was tested constantly as with holding heavy possession. The Red Bulls seemingly took the lead in the 16th minute after a breakthrough. John Tolkin smashed home a curving shot into the right corner of the net. But the goal was called back. Frankie Amaya, who’d set up the shot with a sliding pass, took down a Fire player in the process.

It looked as though Amaya had gotten all of the ball, something coach Lesesne alluded to during his press conference. After the match the officials affirmed the decision saying Amaya “ committed a clear tripping offense”.

New York continued pressing throughout the first half and Chicago was unable to get any shots off. Omir Fernandez sent a looping ball in from the top of the box in the 32nd minute, which Tolkin forcefully headed just wide of the far post from the left side. Elias Manoel had a shot saved by the keeper not long after.

The half ended with Ndam, ironically, playing great defense and running down Chicago’s Xherdan Shaqiri. The forward looked to have a breakaway before the Cameroonian caught up before the two could reach Carlos Coronel in the box.

In the second half, the Fire came out the aggressor. Shaqiri and Georgios Koutsias were being targeted a lot as the Fire looked to play up the wings. Meaning Reyes and Ndam were leaving space open trying to adapt. That helped lead Ndam to a foul in the 49th minute, earning him a yellow card.

The match fell apart about ten minutes later. Ndam slid into Chicago’s Jonathan Dean in the 62nd minute while trying to break a play on the right side. He saw a second yellow card, meaning Chicago had a man advantage. The subsequent free kick by Xherdan Shaqiri curled into the box. Georgios Koutsias headed it to the right side past Coronel to give Chicago the lead.

While the final half hour was played down a man, New York continued to have sizable ball possession time. Though the chances on net didn’t come until the later moments of the game Lesesne says his team’s work was commendable.

“Even going down a man, I give so much credit to this group, I really do,” said Lesesne. “They continue to fight. It’s a little unlucky in some ways on the night but we have to keep saying, we make our own luck. I told the group now, again, some of the results go our way.”

New York could not push ahead as much when short-handed, it did well to hold the Fire from additional scoring opportunities until later on. Shaqiri had a clear chance from 10 yards out in the 87th minute but missed a wide open net. Kacper Przybylko also had a near chance in the 87th minute but hit the post.

New York’s last and best chance was a long shot by Frankie Amaya in the sixth minute of stoppage time. The shot sailed over Brady’s head and hit off the crossbar, with the celebration fire pyro going off as if the ball went into the net.

Besides the result, the match is also notable for the MLS debut of Julian Hall. He joined the match in the 81st minute, replacing Elias Manoel At 15 years, 190 days, Hall became the second-youngest player to ever debut in an MLS match, trailing only former D.C. United phenom Freddy Adu (14 years, 306 days).

When asked about the decision to play Hall, Lesesne went into great detail about the player. His relationship and what the signing means to the New York Red Bulls organization. The full quote is below.

“Julian is someone that over the last year, in particular, part of me being head coach, and really more so whenever I was an assistant coach, I’ve been able to watch him and really work with him and that entire group of 15s that won the National Championship,” Lesesne said when asked by NYCSN. “There’s so many good players coming from that group as they have progressed and developed through our academy system. But Julian is one that we struck up a really good relationship (with). I think I earned his trust and clearly his progress has been from the 15s to now with the second team and playing a lot and scoring goals there, and it’s just like any other player in a lot of ways, when you perform with the second team and you’re able to produce, then the first team is going to look at you and if there’s an opportunity there and he’s earned it and you’re going to give players a chance.

“The signing of Julian, I’ve never been asked much about him but the signing of Julian is one of the biggest moments in this club’s history in terms of the attention and the clubs that were after him are on the highest level, so for us to secure a young talent like that, and him to have the trust in us, is very important, and I think it sends a clear signal about what we’re building now. Julian is going to be a big part of what we build in the future.

“Tonight I told him before he got in, really difficult circumstance, don’t worry about that. Go have fun. Go enjoy the moment. You’ve earned this moment, and I think he went and did that. Now he’s got to turn his focus towards the second team match tomorrow, and that’s being a pro. But I’m really proud of that kid and I’m excited to work with him in the future and I’m glad he’s entrusted us with his development pathway.”

Hall had little impact on the match and now looks towards Sunday’s MLS Next Pro Playoffs with Red Bulls II.

“Obviously, coming from the 15s working to the 17s was obviously a hard part, but making that jump to the second team, then the first team was, I mean, it was great that the coaches had that trust in me to make the next step so it was great to finally get my moment today,” Hall said.

Chicago jumped New York in the playoff race. However, the other results from Saturday night mean the Red Bulls are still only three points out from the final playoff spot.

New York has three games left on the schedule this season. A mid-week away match to Supporter’s Shield winning FC Cincinnati is this Wednesday, Oct. 4. Then Saturday the team plays its last home game when it welcomes Toronto FC to Harrison. Decision Day on Oct. 21 has RBNY visiting Nashville SC.

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