Two own goals. A missed penalty kick. Players benched and subbed for mysterious reasons. A player sent off for throwing a ball at the referee. It'd be hard to call the first playoff leg between the New York Red Bulls and DC United "boring"—or "quality soccer". The 1-1 tie at RFK Stadium sends the series level for the final leg at Red Bull Arena this Wednesday.
The confusion and groaning from NY fans started early, with Hans Backe opting to bench Kenny "18 goals during the season and a brace last weekend" Cooper in favor of Sebastian Le Toux. Le Toux's speed was supposed to add sharpness to the Red Bulls' attack, but it became obvious quickly that there would be little attack at all to be had. Instead, DC's high pressure attack kept New York on the back foot for almost the entire first half.
Things looked dire for New York as Connor Lade conceded a penalty kick 33 minutes in. Lade, already on a yellow card, was lucky not to get sent off and leave NY with 10 men. But Luis Robles—NY's third goalkeeper this season, who was on his fifth start and had barely been tested thus far—came up huge, guessing correctly to deny Chris Pontius the opening goal. The teams would go into the half on a scoreless draw.
And then, the craziness started. Returning from the half, Roy Miller was named as a substitute for Rafa Marquez—not Connor Lade, who would've been the logical sub having already gone in the book. The official word from the team was that the substitution was for "precautionary calf tightness", something Marquez later reitterated on Twitter. But NBC Sports' Kyle Martino claimed on the broadcast to have heard an argument between Marquez and Backe—leading to widespread doubts about the true cause of the substitution.
The substitution would lead to the scoring finally being opened, but not in the way anyone expected. An hour into the match, Roy Miller ran onto a cross in the box, and sent a perfect volley into the upper corner of the net for his first ever career goal in an RBNY jersey. Only problem: the cross was from DC's Perry Kitchen, and the goal he put it into was his own. DC had a 1-0 lead and RFK Stadium was rolling.
The pendulum swung back the other way four minutes later. A Thierry Henry corner kick was headed up by defender Heath Pearce, and DC goalkeeper Bill Hamid leapt for it. But rather than punching it away to safety, he went to grab it—and rather than landing on his feet, he fell into the goal. The ball fully crossed the line, and the game was level once more. Hamid ran out to complain he had been fouled by Markus Holgersson, but the goal stood.
With the game now level and the tensions rising, it was only a matter of five minutes until the next bit of insanity arose. DC defender Andy Najar made a tactical foul on Joel Lindpere during a counter attack, drawing a yellow card. But Najar would then whip the ball at referee Jair Marrufo—earning him an immediate second yellow card and a sending off. Najar will now miss the return leg this Wednesday.
Despite having a man advantage, the Red Bulls were still not able to string together a meaningful attack, and the game would stand at a 1-1 draw. Kenny Cooper got his chance to win the game late when he subbed in for the anonymous Sebastian Le Toux, but was unable to get a single shot off. DC responded well to being down a man and continued to press, but Luis Robles continued to save the game, making five saves total on the night. The final controversy of the night was when Robles scooped up a ball from Markus Holgersson - the backpass could have lead to an indirect free kick in the box, but Marrufo made no call.
The series now heads to Harrison, with the Red Bulls confirming that Red Bull Arena now has power and would host the game on Wednesday night. As there's no away goals rule in the MLS Playoffs, should either team win in regulation, they would advance to the Conference Finals. If Wednesday's game ends a draw, it would proceed to two fifteen minute overtime periods, then penalties if necessary—and undoubtedly, a whole lot more screaming about home field advantage.
History is not on NY's side. Since Red Bull Arena opened in 2010, the home side has lost both of the playoff games held in the "fortress". In fact, NY's last home playoff win was in 2005 - as one fan remarked, "seven years, four managers, one owner, and one stadium ago." Add in that NY has never beaten DC in a playoff series dating back to 1996—and that there may be a nor'easter hitting the area on mid-week—and an already daunting challenge seems insurmountable.
In what is already the most storied and heated rivalry in the league, Wednesday night's chance to reverse NY's fortunes may go down as the most important chapter yet.
Captain Thierry Henry on the match: “We have to wait for the result next to see to who will go through. It is going to be in our city. It really wasn’t a great spectacle. It won’t be an easy one at home. We will see what we can do at home.”
Coach Hans Backe on playing with a man advantage: “I hate to play against ten men. As you end up, they stuck back with two blocks and a back four in midfield, so it’s almost impossible to break down when you play like that.”
Goalkeeper Luis Robles on the penalty stop: “I have to give credit to Coach Todd [Hoffard]. He does a good job in preparing us for a game. We knew in the last three penalty kicks, Pontius waited for the keeper to move and waited and waited. If you are a forward and waiting until the very last second for the goalkeeper to move, it kind of forces them to not shoot as low as they would like to and in that case I was fortunate.”
Goalkeeper Luis Robles on the own goal: "My gosh. I told Roy afterwards, ‘Hey, great finish, man.’ It was fantastic, upper ‘V.’ But of course, he gave his heart out there and he tried everything and it just didn’t work out. But luckily we got that goal back, so now it’s 1-1 and we go to New York.”
DC coach Ben Olsen on the result: “It’s a beatable team. We should have won this game tonight, but 1-1, I’m OK with it. They are a beatable team, that’s for sure. Ultimately, I’m a little disappointed we didn’t win because I thought we played well enough to get a result.”
Next Match: Eastern Conference Semi-Finals Second Leg - Wednesday, November 7th, 8PM, vs. DC United (TV: NBC Sports Network)