Red Bulls Have a Mountain to Climb

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

cup logoThe New York Red Bulls certainly find themselves in a desperate predicament before Sunday’s second leg in the teams’ Major League Soccer Eastern Conference semifinal series. Monday’s 2-1 loss to Toronto FC, the league’s top team during the 34-game regular season, in simple mathematical terms means New York must win the game, and win it by two or more goals.

“The mindset right now is to simply score more goals than them,” goalkeeper Luis Robles said.

Simple and obvious. But while club history puts the onus on the Red Bulls, it is a different story with league history. Since MLS altered its playoff format to use aggregate scores, only two clubs that have won the Supporters’ Shield — Columbus in 2008 and Los Angeles in 2011 — have gone on to win MLS Cup. And as the Red Bulls know only too well, six winners of the Shield have been ousted in their opening series — Columbus in 2004, San Jose in 2005, D.C. United in 2007, Los Angeles in 2010, New York in 2013, and FC Dallas last year.

After Monday night’s deflating loss at Red Bull Arena, the players woke up to Halloween morning and the reality that anything short of a stellar performance on the road will bring the 2017 season to a bittersweet conclusion.

“This team has been fantastic, they’ve been committed all the way, working their tails off,” Coach Jesse Marsch said. “I couldn’t ask for a better group. No one wants the season to end, and what’s most poignant is that this is a great group that has loved being together the last 10, 11 months. We’re going to have to use that to continue to push in the toughest moments in Toronto.”

It is going to be a tall order at BMO Field on Sunday afternoon (coverage begins at 3 p.m. Eastern; ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, New York Red Bulls radio) where TFC has amassed a 13-1-3 record this year and is scoring more than three goals at game at home as it led the league in goals with 74.

“I think we’re going to have to come out with more intensity in Toronto,” defender Aaron Long said. “We need to score two and we’re going to have to come out with a bit of fire. That’s nothing new, they know that.”

That intensity was definitely missing in the series opener last Monday. A misplay by Robles in goal led to Toronto taking an early lead. Daniel Royer‘s successful penalty kick just before the interval gave the Red Bulls some hope, but TFC’s defensive tactics held fast until Sebastian Giovinco buried a free kick to win the match.

The blame and recriminations that oozed from the Red Bulls — Robles shouldered some of the blame while Marsch and the captain Sacha Kljestan pointed fingers at defender Michael Amir Murillo for failing to cover the near post as designed on Giovinco’s free kick.

Those sentiments seemed to be assuaged, or at least that’s the party line, after a players-only dinner.

“The whole group was there, had some really good food,” Kljestan said after training on Friday. “Everybody chatting, everybody in a good mood. We were watching the World Series a little bit. It was just a good time. It was nice to have the guys out of this environment, no stress and just remember in the end we’re playing a soccer game here. We’re going to really go for it, we’re not going to show up and be timid.”

Marsch took a philosophical stance on Friday, praising his players for their season-long efforts, a season that could end on Sunday.

“What’s important is getting the right balance of work and life,” Marsch said. “There are a lot bigger things in life than a home loss to Toronto. It’s important that our guys don’t carry the weight of world when they play in matches. That they play free, go after things, be brave and enjoy it. Playoffs are hard but they’re fun.”

And finally … this … since 2003 when MLS did away with its three-game conference semifinals, six teams have advanced after losing the first leg by 2-1 (2006: Colorado, Houston; 2009: Chicago; 2013 Sporting Kansas City; and 2015: FC Dallas, Columbus). Of those six, three reached  MLS Cup and two won the title (Houston in 2006 and Sporting KC in 2013).