Red Bulls 2, FC Dallas 0: Galaxy’s Reward for Winning Supporters’ Shield? Facing the Team with the Highest Payroll in the League

It wasn’t always pretty—especially in the first 30 minutes or so, when their backline was under almost constant pressure—but the New York Red Bulls scraped out a 2-0 win over Dallas at Pizza Hut Park last night to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs.

New York will now take on the Los Angeles Galaxy in a two-game, total-goals series that begins on Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena (3:00 ET, ESPN2).

The Galaxy might prefer a different opponent as a reward for racking up the league’s best regular-season record (19-5-10), but the well-paid, high-profile Red Bulls played with a season-long inconsistency that boxed them into the 10th and final seed in the postseason. So here they are, looming as a dangerous first matchup for the Supporters’ Shield winners.

Then again, they may not be as dangerous as they were heading into last night. New York lost right back Jan Gunnar Solli, a key component of their defense and their offense (he regularly gets forward and swings in dangerous crosses), to a red card, and they may have lost right midfielder Dax McCarty to an ankle injury. The status of striker Luke Rodgers, who missed last night’s game with knee swelling, is also in doubt.

But the Red Bulls got the result they needed last night, and once again they had Joel Lindpere to thank for the critical goal that sent them on their way. Lindpere has been the most consistent and most clutch player on the team during the past two seasons. In the 61st minute last night, he ghosted in between Dallas defenders George John and Ugo Ihemelu in the box, and slipped Mehdi Ballouchy’s cross past Kevin Hartman for a 1-0 New York lead.

After Solli’s red in the 79th, the 10-man Red Bulls bunkered in to protect their lead, then iced the game deep into stoppage time, when Henry got behind the pushed-up FCD backline and eventually finished off a breakaway.

Highlights:

Red Bulls 2, New England, 0: New York Wins Eastern Conference

We have, now, officially, after several seasons of watching his high-speed, low-skill antics, reached the point at which Red Bull winger Dane Richards can be called …  a good player.

A damn good one: He has five goals in his last seven games, and has been the primary spark-provider in New York’s conference-championship stretch run.

When he sat out last week’s Philadelphia game, the Red Bull attack was noticeably listless (that was partly due to their 4-5-1 first-half formation, but they definitely missed The Dane).

Back in the lineup in front of a decent Thursday-night crowd at Red Bull Arena yesterday, Richards opened the scoring 17 minutes in, taking an excellent pass from Juan Pablo Angel, streaking to the top of the box, and rifling a shot over New England keeper Bobby Shuttleworth (no relation to Jesus).

Joel Lindpere salted away the win with a nice cutback and goal (and New England’s Chris Tierney clearly kept him onside, double-check the replay below) in stoppage time.

The victory clinched playoff homefield advantage for the Red Bulls, and it also tied their own MLS record for best single-year improvement (10 wins), set in 2000.

Lindpere’s capper could not have been more appropriate: He scored the first regular-season goal at Red Bull Arena on March 27, and last night, he bagged the last. In between, he was the most consistent performer for the team, hands-down.

Also of note, before we get to the highlights—Juan Pablo Angel looked good, holding the ball up well, and sending out several other nice passes in addition to the one that set up Richards. After the game, New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph (who outplayed Rafa Marquez, btw), responded to the recent talk that Angel will not be back next season, telling Goal.com:

“I think it would be really stupid to let Angel go. In my eyes, he is definitely one of the top three scorers in this league. He does so much for that team. For him not to re-sign would be a sad loss, but if he leaves, hopefully our team and organization can make a bid for him.”

We tend to agree—and Angel has certainly been much healthier than Thierry Henry this season.

Okay, highlights: