By James Nalton.
New York Red Bulls qualified for the MLS Playoffs proper after defeating Charlotte FC in a goal-filled wildcard game.
The Red Bulls joined Red Bull Arena housemates NJ/NY Gotham of the NWSL in representing the New York metropolitan area in pro soccer’s 2023 post-season in their respective leagues.
Elias Manoel scored a marvellous hat-trick while John Tolkin, who scored the penalty in the final game of the season to get the Red Bulls into this game, was again key with an outstanding free-kick goal and two assists.
“He deserves more credit for not only what he does against the ball, but what he does with the ball,” Red Bulls head coach Troy Lesesne said of Tolkin after the game.
“This free kick is just special, this has nothing to do with any coaching. This is JMi [Tolkin] again stepping up and creating a big moment.”
Daniel Edelman lofted a ball over the Charlotte defence to set up the first of Manoel’s goals. The Red Bulls have won 10 of the 14 games in which they have opened the scoring this season, so this was a promising early sign.
The Red Bulls xG was only 1.14 per FotMob, but when you attack with such speed, the resulting shots can catch defense and goalkeeper off guard.
It also helps if you can find the top corner with a free-kick, as Tokin did.
“I just heard Kyle Duncan behind me, he’s like ‘Show me something, show me something,'” Tolkin said after the game.
“And, yeah, I guess I had to show something. Luckily it was able to go in. Not too bad, huh?”
Who needs Lionel Messi in the MLS playoffs when you have John Tolkin of New Jersey scoring left-footed free-kick goals like this? pic.twitter.com/7RJsegA3v4
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) October 26, 2023
The second strike of Manoel’s hat-trick was also impressive in isolation, but Tolkin’s assist still played a part.
He drove down the left before laying it inside to Manoel who was now in good space. Enough space to pick his corner and place the ball past the stationary Kristijan Kahlina in the Charlotte goal.
It was another goal scored before Charlotte even had time to think. The side from North Carolina was 3-0 down before it was consciously in the tie. Three goals against from just 0.19 xG. How did that happen?
The visitors, via Nathan Byrne, forced a good save from Carlos Coronel just before the half, then made a mark on the game at the beginning of the second period with a spectacular overhead goal from Kerwin Vargas following a well-worked set piece.
Tolkin was involved again for the Red Bulls’ fourth, played in by a nice ball from Luquinhas before crossing to find Tom Barlow’s run into the six-yard box.
Luquinhas should have scored himself before Patrick Agyemang forced his way through the Red Bulls’ defense to add another for Charlotte. That goalkeeper Kahlina got the assist for this tells you a lot about what kind of goal it was. Route 1.
It was fitting that Manoel’s hat-trick goal sealed the deal and sent the Red Bulls into the playoffs proper.
A hat-trick to be celebrated along with progress. Something the Red Bulls haven’t had much of in 2023. Regardless of what happens next, it was a moment to remember in a difficult season.
The Red Bulls now face the unenviable task of trying to get past the best team in MLS in 2023, Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati, in the first round of the playoffs proper, in what will be a best-of-three series.
If they play like they did in the first half, they could trouble any team, even one as good as Cincinnati.
“We need to manage the game really well and I don’t think we did that in the second half,” added Lesesne.
“They score five minutes into the second half, and we give away a silly foul and we don’t control that moment very well.
“My focus now is on Cincinnati. If we play like we did in the second half, then we’re going to have problems.”
Lesesne was keen to keep his players concentrated after such a convincing win, as the Red Bulls 2023 season continues, perhaps unexpectedly given their troubles earlier in the year, into November.