So ends another chapter in the history of what may be New York's most cursed sports franchise: the New York Red Bulls fell 0-1 at home Thursday night to bitter rivals DC United, losing the aggregate series 2-1 and sending them crashing out of the playoffs.
Rather than trying to describe the whole match - which was generally back and forth - let's just walk through the final twenty minutes, where four key moments saw New York go from ecstasy to agony.
69th Minute: On a breakaway, Kenny Cooper runs into the box and is brought down by goalkeeper Bill Hamid. Referee Mark Geiger blows for a penalty and sends Hamid off with a straight red. Backup goalkeeper Joe Willis is forced to dress quickly and come onto the field, replacing midfielder Bosko Boskovic. United are down a man and could easily be down a goal.
Back in August, DC felt hard done by Mark Geiger calling for encroachment on a penalty kick - a rarely called foul that forces a penalty to be retaken, but within the laws of the game. In that game, DC scored the first penalty but missed the retake, denying them a crucial winning goal. So when Geiger disallowed Kenny Cooper's successful penalty kick for encroachment. and Cooper's second attempt was saved, there was a distinct feeling of deja vu. The encroachment call was valid - Henry and other players were clearly in the box - and escaping that danger gave DC extra drive to keep going.
75th Minute: RBNY's man advantage is negated after six minutes, as Rafa Marquez earns a second yellow card and is sent off the field. Hans Backe does not make any substitutions to fill in the back line at this time.
88th Minute: On a slowly building attack, Robbie Russell plays a through ball to Nick deLeon, who is kept onside by Connor Lade. deLeon blasts a goal into the far post, leaving NY behind on aggregate with only minutes to play. Hans Backe responds a minute later by subbing in two defenders - Roy Miller and Rodrigo "Digao" Leite, who had not yet played a single minute for NY - for Teemu Tainio and Joel Lindpere.
93rd Minute: With stoppage time running out, New York is awarded a free kick on the edge of the penalty box. It would be New York's last and best chance to equalize the game. Thierry Henry and a few other players gather around the ball to discuss strategy as DC formed a wall with over half their players.
The free kick is taken. Not by Thierry Henry, deadball specialist. Not by Tim Cahill either. Instead, the kick is taken by Roy Miller - playoff scapegoat in 2010 and 2011, scorer of the own goal against NY in the previous leg - who sends it high, over the crossbar and into the stands.
The game ends not long after. United's bench explodes in happiness, and goes to celebrate with the 300 traveling fans. A few despondent Red Bulls applaud the fans who hadn't already fled Harrison, but most retreat to the locker room morosely. The sight of Kenny Cooper crying in a locker and being consoled by Thierry Henry drove home the disappointment and frustration over another wasted campaign.
As United prepares to go through to the Conference Finals to face Houston on Sunday, the Red Bulls are faced with some tough questions. Allow me to offer some tough answers:
Who gets the blame for this one?
There were lots of small individual failures, but hard to put a finger on a large, looming one. While Rafa Marquez getting sent off was eminently stupid, he had been a monster on defense for much of the game. It's easy to want to put the failure on Roy Miller, but the team had 89 minutes without him on the field to score. Instead, I'm going to lay this one at the feet of coach Backe. He let Marquez continue to play on a yellow card, always a clear risk. He made two defensive subs with the team down a goal. And he and his coaching staff obviously failed to get one key message about Mark Geiger out to the team: don't run into the damn box on a penalty.
Will Hans Backe be back?
The coach and players alike refused to comment on his future immediately after the game, but it's safe odds he won't return. By the numbers, it's hard to deny he's done better than most every coach that this franchise has seen. But with new management coming in, his contract expiring, and a third straight year of falling out of the playoffs earlier than the highest paid team in the league should, it's difficult to see him getting a contract renewal.
UPDATED: That didn't take long. The team announced this afternoon that Backe's contract will not be extended, nor will that of assistant coach Jan Halvor Halvorsen. Mike Petke will serve as interim coach until a new coach can be hired.
How much rebuilding does this team do in the offseason?
In NY, every year is a rebuilding year! But especially going into 2013: with a heavy salary burden and less allocation money next year, players will likely be shed. Sebastian Le Toux will almost certainly leave with his contract expiring, likely to head back to Philly if he stays in MLS at all. Knowing that this team enjoys waiving reserves and young players, the likes of Jeremy Vuolo, Jose Angulo, or Jonathan Borrajo could be shown the door fairly quickly. (Perhaps the management change will spare them that pain.) Even core members of the team like Dax McCarty or Kenny Cooper aren't necessarily on solid ground: after all, this is a team not afraid to deal players to get pieces they need (or think they need).
One player you shouldn't expect to depart is Rafa Marquez. Despite widespread calls to ditch the Mexican international (NBC Sport's Steve Davis labeled him as "a terrible toxin") and long standing rumors that he wanted out of his contract, he stated plainly after the game that he wanted to return next season to close out the last year of his contract.
Will next season be any different?
With the right coach, maybe. NY has the right individual talent currently (although stronger outside players couldn't hurt), but doesn't seem to click as a team. The "die for each other" attitude that developed earlier this season evaporated as summer turned into fall, and that chemistry is what puts teams like DC, Kansas City, and San Jose in a position to do amazing things with smaller budgets.
The Red Bulls are frequently dubbed "great on paper". But to be great on the field, you need to build partnerships. You need to have all eleven players in sync for how the attack should strike and defense should form. With a constantly shuffling roster and lineup, those understandings don't form.
There's a lot of chatter about the best place to source the next manager from, generally expressed as fears that the Red Bull upper management will choose another European coach over someone with known MLS experience. In my eyes, it's not about familiarity with the league - it's about being able to get world class players making millions and rookies making the league minimum to co-exist and play well together. You're unlikely to find that in Europe, certainly - but you're also not necessarily going to find it in MLS. The best choice at this point may be Jesse Marsch, who dealt with a similar mix of talent in Montreal and was let go last week.
Can you call the 2012 Red Bulls season a success?
If the ultimate goal was to win the MLS Cup or the Shield, obviously the team has failed. But: the season does remain the third best performance in team history. Unlike last year, they uncovered some strong young talent, like Ryan Meara and Connor Lade. They made smart player acquisitions: Luis Robles, Lloyd Sam, and Heath Pearce were all inspired pickups. Taken in the context of all seventeen NY seasons, it was at the higher end of the spectrum. Certainly in comparison to 2011 it was an improvement - but that improvement doesn't fill the trophy case.
POST MATCH REACTIONS
Coach Hans Backe on the performance: "It's a tough thing to lose; we knocked on the door for 90 minutes, played a good game, (created) a number of chances against a team who was sitting the whole time, but we were still able to create enough chances to win this game - but still, you could say that's football, they did get one or two chances and were effective on the last one. I can't be negative on our team's effort; it was a good game from us."
Thierry Henry, on why Roy Miller took the final free kick: "Well, it's a left-footed play. The angle is different for me on that side. We talked about it or so with Roy and we wanted to surprise the goalkeeper; make him think that I was going to take it and then Roy take it. Also on that side, it's better for a left footed player to take it. It didn't work but the game did not come down to the free kick at the end of the game. If you analyze the game well, we should have scored several times before that."
Tim Cahill on emotions after the game: "I just feel sorry for the fans. They're amazing last night, they come out last night, they're standing out in the cold. The D.C. fans come out last night and then they come back today and it's a pity we couldn't finish the job for them. I feel for the players, I don't have much more to say. It's an emotional dressing room and that's how it should be. You should hold your head up high. If you put everything on that pitch and you poured your heart and soul into the game then you should be able to walk away with a bit of pride."
Joel Lindpere, at a loss for words: "Changes need to be done, it's normal with the Red Bulls, that there are changes all the time. I've been here for three years, playing fucking every game, and I've won nothing, so...I think we have a great team, and we have to see who's staying and who's leaving, I don't know. I don't think about this now, I think about how to get away from here and go home and relax...maybe we have too much experience with these playoff games, maybe it's better to be bottom of the league a couple years then play again, go fresh and win with some luck."
Tim Cahill on his hopes for the rest of the playoffs: "I want DC to go on and win it. Good coach. They fight hard - they don't play the best football, but they're a good team."