Faced with another typical playoff failure, the Red Bulls found a way to write a new script. It seemed so familiar Thursday night in Harrison, as the Red Bulls found themselves down 1-0 with the clock ticking away against defending champs Sporting Kansas City. But a late two-goal performance from Bradley Wright-Phillips sent the home side through 2-1, setting up a conference semi-final series against bitter rivals D.C. United.
A conservative and frustrating first half. Single elimination matches don't encourage attacking soccer, as neither team wants to concede first. Sporting typically presses high, but instead tried to absorb the pressure from New York's attack. The Red Bulls would get open looks at goal (Tim Cahill receiving a deflected ball six yards out; BWP getting a free header; Thierry Henry running in free), but time and again they would be wasted (shanked over the bar; headed over the bar; wide right).
Disaster early in the second half. The turnover was ugly: Eric Alexander had the ball tackled away on an easy pass at midfield. The counter was dangerous: Benny Feilhaber streaked downfield and placed a perfect diagonal ball to Dom Dwyer. The resulting 1-0 deficit was unsurprising: yet again, a single Red Bulls mistake had been punished at home during the playoffs. With just over half an hour to play, Mike Petke would need some magic.
An equalizer from a familiar partnership. It was the insertion of Peguy Luyindula that allowed RBNY to shift the tide of the match. In the 77th minute, Peguy managed to pull three defenders towards him and send Henry on a break. Henry pulled Aurelien Collin away from Wright-Phillips and then fed the Golden Boot winner the ball, who struck it one time and leveled the match.
A reverse Metro finish. Given their incredibly spotty history, the sort of typical breakdowns that doomed the MetroStars - and now the Red Bulls - are often labeled as being "Metro". So had you approached a long time fan and told them that a team scored in the 90th minute? Typical Metro. The team scored off a botched cross that never should've been a scoring opportunity? Very Metro. The goal being from the team's leading scorer, who was given acres of space because all the defenders forgot what they were doing? 100% Metro.
The difference last night was that it was New York that scored that completely Metro goal, and it was Sporting Kansas City who left fans shouting "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" at their televisions. And so, Ambroise Oyongo's miss-hit cross fell to a wide open Bradley Wright-Phillips, who headed home the game winner and sent Harrison into pandemonium:
The win broke one other important psychological curse for the home side: it was the first home playoff victory for the Red Bulls since their stadium opened in 2010.
The MLS playoffs don't reward teams that go through the play-in round. The punishment for New York: less than 72 hours to turn around before hosting DC United in the first leg of the conference semi-finals. Regular season results were mixed this year between the two (DC took the series, two games to one), and New York has never won any of their four playoff series against United.
But if they could flip the script on the defending champions, perhaps they can do it again on the Eastern Conference leaders.
POST MATCH REACTIONS
Mike Petke on his emotions during the game: "There was a point late in the second half where I was questioning if this team was scared of the playoffs. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been saying I don’t believe in any curses, or jinxes or anything like that, but I thought maybe we were just scared of the playoffs. But they proved that wrong, and now they’re happy in the locker room, exhausted, and now it’s on to D.C."
Thierry Henry on the difference between Thursday and past playoff failures: "It’s always difficult. Like I said to you, if I roll by the years, it looked like one of the games that we actually lost here. Houston, San Jose, I’m not going to name them all but we created chances in all of those games which should have been one or two-nil up and then you end up being one-nil down like tonight, but tonight we kept our composure, we didn’t lose our shape, something that we did against Columbus, we didn’t lose our shape, we kept our focus, although it looked like the game was going to finish one-nil, but we scored and obviously like I said so many times, when you have a guy like Bradley Wright-Phillips in the box and you can find him, then you can finish the job."
Luis Robles on carrying momentum forward: "I’m hoping. We knew that, after Sunday, when we played in Kansas City and we got a good result and we played well that it was going to be something that we bring into this game. I felt for the most part we did that, and even in the first 45 minutes I thought we were seeing vintage Kansas City, but, you know, Brad is having an incredible season and he saved us tonight again, and Thierry just continued to put him under. In a way, we were just saying in the locker room, it was almost a blessing that they scored, because they stopped pressing. At that moment we were able to take the game to them, and in a way they made their own bed."