It’s not mission impossible, but the Red Bulls‘ task on Sunday in the second leg of MLS’s Eastern Conference Final will certainly be a difficult one.
For the first time this season, New York finds itself with its back to the wall after suffering a 2-0 first-leg defeat at the hands of Columbus Crew SC on Sunday. The Supporters’ Shield-winners were thrown off kilter after Justin Meram’s series-opening goal nine seconds into the match, the fastest goal in MLS playoff history.
“Yeah, [giving up that goal] is tough,” Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said after the loss. “It was embarrassing defending, schoolyard stuff. The second time we played [the Crew] here in the regular season when they beat us 2-1, they played direct and they played off [Kei] Kamara, and he just flicked it on and they had runners running off it. They do it five, 10 seconds into [Sunday’s] game and for some reason we are surprised, and we don’t defend it properly.”
Despite out-shooting and out-possessing Crew SC throughout the match, the Red Bulls couldn’t find a way to put the ball in the back of the net. Of their 16 shots, two were on goal, as golden chance after golden chance went begging for the final touch. A Kamara goal in the 85th minute put New York in a precarious position heading into the second leg: Score at least two goals without surrendering any or have the season end in front of a sold-out Red Bull Arena.
For the Red Bulls to advance to the MLS Cup on Sunday, Dec. 6, the following must occur:
- The Red Bulls must win Sunday’s game by three-plus goals or
- The Red Bulls force extra time by winning the second leg 2-0 after and then win in extra time or penalty kicks.
Sounds daunting, right? It certainly is, until you look at some the underlying factors that may give you hope as a Red Bulls fan.
The Red Bulls Played Better in the First Leg Than You Think
Sometimes, you don’t get correct for the performance in the final scoreline. New York did outshoot Columbus 16-15 and had more of the ball throughout the match (53.4 percent ball possession to the Crew’s 46.6 percent).
The reality is that goals decide games no matter how you play and Crew SC were more clinical in the first leg than the Red Bulls.
“That’s why it’s a little bit frustrating because we had a lot of chances,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said to the media after the match. “Sometimes when you score early like Columbus does, you wind up taking a little bit more of a defensive posture. I thought that a lot of the things we did, on the day, we were able to put the game on our terms. We weren’t dangerous enough.”
Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan both had golden opportunities to equalize with the Red Bulls down a goal. Should they get the same chances in the second leg, the smart money will be on the duo to finish off those opportunities accordingly.
Columbus’ Defense Can Be Breached
You have to give credit to Crew SC’s defense for keeping a clean sheet against Major League Soccer’s best attack, but it still was far from a solid performance. Had the Red Bulls scored a goal before Kamara’s potential backbreaking goal late in the game, this would be a completely different series.
A good thing Marsch’s men can take out of the loss was that they were able to create opportunities. Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter is at heart an attacking coach and, while Columbus is undoubtedly a fabulously attack-minded team, Crew SC is vulnerable at the other end of the pitch. Columbus’ goal differential away from home during the regular season was minus-8, something that Marsch will no doubt point to during training this week.
Red Bull Arena Can Be a Fortress
New York was one of the best teams at home during the regular season (12-3-2) and the Red Bulls will need every bit of that advantage if they want to overturn the deficit. This may be the most important game in Red Bulls history and the South Ward will be at its boisterous best.
The key will be getting an early goal. Should the Red Bulls get a quick goal – like the Crew did in the first leg – the momentum will be with the home side and the pressure will be on Columbus to keep the hosts out in a heated, hostile atmosphere.
“We’re a confident team and we’re confident we’ll come back and make a game out of it,” center back Matt Miazga said Tuesday. “We have the belief that we can dig ourselves out of this hole. We’ve been written off all year and I think this won’t change anything. We just have to do our job and get the result.”