The New York Red Bulls didn't get the result they needed in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals, suffering a 2-1 home loss to the New England Revolution. While winning the series next Saturday isn't be an impossible task, it'll made tougher by the suspension of Bradley Wright-Phillips, caused by both questionable officiating and coaching.
With a legitimately sold out crowd, and easily the most important game in Red Bull Arena's five year history, both New York and New England threw everything they could into the game. It was the sort of tough, physical game you'd expect from two teams desperate to win their first MLS Cup—which made referee Allen Chapman's constant whistling frustrating. Chapman would issue ten yellow cards on the afternoon, nearly a league record.
"I feel sorry for the supporters," griped Tim Cahill after the match. "You know, having to come watch a game that's broken up, an intense game. In my opinion, the game should be reviewed. When you look at how many yellows it was, it was ridiculous."
Bradley Wright-Phillips (more on his yellow card in a bit) wouldn't speak out against the referees in fear of a fine, but took a shot at his opposition, reflecting quietly that "I thought Jermaine Jones reffed the game well today." Shots FIRED.
New England's Teal Bunbury drew first blood in the seventeenth minute, and there wasn't much the Red Bulls defense could do about it. Having beaten Ambroise Oyongo, Bunbury found himself with enough space just outside the box to fire a shot. The ball swerved perfectly, giving Luis Robles no chance at a save.
New York wouldn't be down for long, with a perfect team goal coming in the 27th minute. It started with a key tackle from Ibrahim Sekagya that allowed him to poke the ball to Ambroise Oyongo. Oyongo played a pass forward to Thierry Henry, who smartly let it roll through to an onrushing Peguy Luyindula. Peguy's first shot was denied by Bobby Shuttleworth, but the rebound found him on the ground. His second shot crashed off the crossbar and down, where an incoming Bradley Wright-Phillips (who might have been offside) pushed it home.
The game then fell into a familiar rhythm: The Revs would bunker, looking comfortable to get out of Harrison with a draw and a road goal and maybe strike on the counter. New York would get big chances—perfect crosses, deflections right to attacking players—but waste them.
The most pivotal moment of the series may have been a questionable but typically forgettable yellow card in the 60th minute, when Bradley Wright-Phillips was judged to have encroached on Revs goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth trying to play the ball.
The yellow card wouldn't have meant anything had BWP not also picked up a yellow in the second leg of the DC United game, which means he now faces an automatic one game suspension in the now-pivotal second leg. Despite this being a rather sizable risk that was clearly state on the cover of the match guide distributed to media, no one we spoke to in the Red Bulls organization—not Mike Petke (who wasn't aware of the suspension until asked by a reporter), not Bradley Wright-Phillips, not Tim Cahill or Thierry Henry or Luis Robles—were aware of this risk before the match started.
Allow us to get on the soapbox just for a moment: it is completely unacceptable for coaches, staff, and players to be unaware of the rules and implications of the playoffs. That Petke didn't know BWP was suspended is bothersome; that BWP himself was not instructed to avoid picking up a card is practically negligent. Someone in the Red Bulls organization failed spectacularly on Sunday, in a way that could well doom the team's playoff chances.
Even without knowing they'd be without BWP, the Red Bulls kept pushing to build a lead. And then came the inevitable backbreaking counter. New England recovered the ball near midfield with Dax McCarty out of position, and Lee Nguyen started a quick break. Nguyen split the defenders with a pass to Bunbury, who smashed a cross into the onrushing Jermaine Jones for the game winner.
Much as Peguy Luyindula's goal had silenced RFK two weeks prior, the air sucked out of the otherwise vocal home crowd. The 1,150 Revs fans in the upper deck of Red Bull Arena chanting "WE WANT THE CUP" as the final whistle blew and Red Bull Arena emptied out for the final time of the year.
The scenarios for next week's second leg are clear: the Red Bulls must win in Foxboro, and they must score multiple goals. A 1-0 win, or any tie or loss will end their post-season run. (A 2-1 victory would send the game to extra time.) With BWP suspended, one might expect to see the estranged Tim Cahill get his first start since October 30th. And Thierry Henry, who avoids artificial surfaces like the plague, finally gave a firm answer to media hounding him about if he'd play on Gilette's turf: "I'm playing. You happy?"
While the mood in the locker room was stunned, it was hard to ignore the message coming from all the players: yes, the team was down—but they aren't out. As the old cliche goes, it's only halftime.
Next Match: Saturday, November 29th @ 3 PM, at New England (TV: NBCSN)