By AVI CREDITOR
The tones in the two RFK Stadium locker rooms told the story. One a jubilant scene, smiles all around, high-fives left and right; The other a morbid place, deathly silent, as players coped with what's becoming the norm.
Those descriptions are common for the annual Atlantic Cup battle held in the nation's capital, but the locker rooms have swapped.
Led by second-half goals from Salou Ibrahim and Juan Pablo Angel, the New York Red Bulls exorcised yet another demon during the 2010 season on Saturday, defeating rival D.C. United, 2-0, and matching the team's win total from all of 2009.
For New York, the win at RFK marked the team's first in five years. For D.C., the loss sealed the franchise's worst-ever start (0-5). The Eastern Conference landscape isn't what it once was anymore.
"It's unbelievable," said New York winger Dane Richards, who set up Ibrahim's 51st-minute goal with a cross from the right. "Last year you could drop a pin and hear it the way the locker room was quiet. Now everybody's talking, laughing, jumping up and down. I'm loving it."
The Red Bulls have reason to be excited. They've already won two road games after not winning any in 2009, and they sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference standings with 15 points through six matches.
"Last year was tough," said right back Jeremy Hall, who contributed to the Red Bulls' third clean sheet of the season. "It was tough coming into the locker room. People didn't want to talk, they still had sad faces on and whatnot. We're happy for ourselves right now. We're playing well."
The striker tandem of Ibrahim and Angel have seemingly found a rhythm to complement the team's defensive and midfield efforts.
Angel, who dipped back into the midfield at times, helped create Ibrahim's goal. After a D.C. turnover, Angel moved the ball down the pitch before spotting Richards on his right.
The Clemson product juked inside defender Rodney Wallace, cut toward the box and played a cross to the near post. Ibrahim's attempt to one-time the pass was deflected, but the ball stayed in a favorable position for the Ghanaian forward, who tapped it in off the right post for the opening goal and his second tally of the season.
"The two forwards up top, they set the tone for us," Hall said.
Nine minutes later, Angel was on the receiving end of a routine long free kick from Joel Lindpere. He rose up above D.C. centerback Juan Manuel Pena and flicked a header past a flat-footed Troy Perkins to deflate United's spirit and double New York's lead.
"This has always been a very tough place for us to win," Angel said. "We're just delighted that we keep getting results. It's phenomenal. … We're believing in ourselves, we're battling in every game, we're showing character, and we're stealing points pretty much everywhere, and that's a great feeling."
D.C. would hardly recognize a great feeling. Aside from the team's U.S. Open Cup triumph over fellow-winless FC Dallas, United has had its league games fall into a similar, disturbing pattern: Start well, create some chances, fail to finish, fall apart after halftime.
United was the better team in the first half, forcing New York keeper Bouna Coundoul into making a couple of heroic saves. Clyde Simms' point-blank header off a Kurt Morsink through-ball was the home team's best shot at going ahead, but Coundoul was up to the task and positioned himself well to deny the midfielder.
D.C. maintained its shape, moved the ball well and was able to silence New York's attack through the halftime whistle. Then the reminders of the winless start begin to make their impact.
"In the second half I think we feel like we have to win the game, and we get a little on edge," United midfielder Santino Quaranta said. "We don't get the goal yet, and we start to lose our shape a little bit. We throw more numbers forward, and we get a little desperate, and that's normal when you're 0-4. You give up a goal, guys heads go down, and we never got a chance to get it back."
Not even the re-introduction of Luciano Emilio in the 66th minute could invigorate United's attack or the paltry crowd of 12,089 on a gorgeous afternoon, as the team stalled out, accepted its fate and became a shutout victim for the fourth time in five matches.
Things don't get any easier either, as coach Curt Onalfo's former team, an improved Kansas City side, comes into RFK on Wednesday looking to replicate its 4-0, season-opening drubbing of the league's cellar dweller.
"There's not a whole lot of positives to take," Onalfo said. "We're 0-5, we just lost in front of our home crowd again, 2-0, and that's unacceptable."