The improbably offseason continues. The New York Red Bulls have advanced to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2008. They moved on at the expense of their biggest rivals, D.C. United. And they secured their spot in front of nearly 1,250 New York supporters who had travelled en masse down I-95 to RFK Stadium in support of their club.

Granted, they advanced by losing Saturday's match 2-1. But so it goes in the two-leg aggregate format, with the 3-2 margin following 180 minutes favoring the Red Bulls.

Both teams started the second leg striking a cautious balance. United would need at least two goals to even begin the conversation about turning the series. The Red Bulls needed a single away goal to gain a pivotal tiebreaker. With each team looking to both score and avoid conceding at any cost, the game took a weird rhythm, with conservative attacking and physical play.

The momentum swung in the favor of D.C. towards the end of the first half. First, a promising New York attack was blocked away by the arm of defender Bobby Boswell, but referee Ismail Elfath waved off the penalty shout. Seven minutes later, Nick DeLeon broke free of his marker and smashed home a cross from Taylor Kemp to cut the aggregate deficit to one.

Moments before halftime, Bradley Wright-Phillips would streak into the box on a defensive mistake, but have his shot stuffed by Bill Hamid. It felt, once again, like the moment of magic New York needed might not come, that the old demons that haunt the club had not fully been vanquished. For those who have suffered through the years with the MetroStars and the Red Bulls, it becomes hard to not fall into superstition and curses. Playoff collapse, even when holding a lead, seems to be sewn into the Red Bulls’ jerseys.

But then, in the 57th minute, Dax McCarty played a desperate long ball from midfield, so uncontrolled he slipped and fell making the pass. Bradley Wright-Phillips delivered the ball to Thierry Henry, who found himself with Sean Franklin jockeying in front of him. Henry pushed the ball to the left, and delivered a solid cross inside the six yard box directly to Peguy Luyindula, who only needed to redirect it far post.

The goal was nearly identical to DeLeon’s in the first half, but the difference in reaction could not have been more striking. No longer were the collected D.C. supporters groups bouncing, willing their team against odds that had gotten much longer. It was only the mass of traveling supporters who threatened to bring RFK to the ground with their enthusiasm. With a full traveling allotment of 1,250 tickets sold, they had packed onto buses, trains and cars early Saturday morning to visit what had been a house of playoff horrors. With the away goal in hand, the result seemed locked up.

Roy Miller’s annual moment of profound stupidity - a straight red card in the 78th minute for a dangerous challenge on Franklin - couldn’t bring them down. (Miller will miss both legs of the conference finals, as his earlier yellow card had already earned him a suspension for accumulation.)

Even Franklin’s consolation goal in stoppage time couldn’t stop supporters from removing their shirts in the cold November air. The final whistle was greeted with a resounding roar, allowing fans to cross “never won a playoff series against D.C.” off the clubs failure list. As DC United players dejectedly applauded their fans, Mike Petke climbed into the stands to thank the jubilant supporters.

Only one major item remains on that failure list: “never won an MLS Cup”. The Red Bulls will await the winner of the other Eastern Conference semi-final series between New England and Columbus. New England leads 4-2 on aggregate and hosts the second leg this afternoon, so they are heavily favored to advance. The resulting series will begin in two weeks (damn you, FIFA international breaks!), with the Red Bulls hosting the higher seed on November 23rd and the return leg falling on either November 29th or 30th. Should the Red Bulls emerge victorious from that, they would travel to whichever team emerges from the West for the MLS Cup Final on December 7th.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. As Thierry Henry loves to repeat during the playoffs: they haven't won anything - yet.



Coach Mike Petke: “This is a series that in years past we would have lost. These guys showed determination—we had guys with a bloody lip, guys getting stitches and a guy with a lump on his head—these guys gave it their all and I’m really proud of them and they earned the right to be in the conference finals.”

Thierry Henry on the mentality going into the second half: “It was kind of a weird one. You go back on the field, second half, and you’re defending 1-0 down or trying to score and make sure that you’re basically there. That’s what we tried to do, at the same time, trying to keep that goal that we had on aggregate. But as soon as we scored, it became a different game, and it became a different game again when we went down to ten men.”

Dax McCarty on the result: “This is the only time you can lose a game and be happy. Obviously it’s a good feeling in here right now. I think we aren’t extremely satisfied with how we played, but we knew we just needed one or two moments of magic and we had a few and were able to score one goal.”

Thierry Henry on if he would potentially play on New England’s artificial turf in the Conference Finals: “We’re not there yet. You know yet? I don’t know yet.”