The New York Red Bulls entered the Home Depot Center on Thursday evening knowing that nothing less than a victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy would do if they hoped to progress further in the 2011 MLS postseason. However, despite leveling the aggregate score at 1-1 early and dominating the game's opening exchanges, New York was let down by two things their fans have witnessed all too often this season: slack set piece defending and a lack of discipline in their own penalty box. The result: a 2-1 defeat on the night and a 3-1 loss on aggregate. It's the Galaxy who will be moving on to play Real Salt Lake, while the Red Bulls are left with a long trip home and lots of questions about where a season that began with much promise and massive hype went wrong.
Leading up to Thursday's match, Luke Rodgers was vocal in insisting that the Red Bulls were not the "cheap" team that Landon Donovan had accused them of being following the first leg of the home and home series. And over the course of the first hour especially, Rodgers played with a chip on his shoulder, booed every time he touched the ball but feeding off the reaction. Thierry Henry, finding more space to operate in the center of the field than he had on Sunday, put Rodgers through on goal after just four minutes. The pint-sized striker outpaced Omar Gonzalez easily and finished past Josh Saunders. Almost immediately, New York was right back in the tie and looking the more likely of the two teams to score a second. Los Angeles, trying to manage in the absence of the suspended Juninho, wasn't nearly as airtight as they had been in the first leg at Red Bull Arena, and the game was far more open as a result.
Already missing half of its starting central midfield tandem due to the suspension of Rafael Marquez, the Red Bulls found themselves deprived of Teemu Tainio after just 16 minutes when the Finn was forced to leave with an injury. It would prove to be a turning point. Hans Backe brought Stephane Auvray into the game, and New York's control of the midfield immediately suffered. Slowly, the Galaxy found their way back into the match, and managed to grab the crucial equalizing goal shortly before halftime. Mike Magee, left completely unmarked, didn't even have to leave his feet to meet a 42nd minute David Beckham corner kick, directing the ball powerfully past a leaping Frank Rost. At halftime, the Red Bulls found themselves right back where they had started - needing a goal just to get back into the tie.
To their credit, New York continued to fight and search for a second goal. A Dane Richards ball across the penalty area in the 53rd minute nearly met the foot of the streaking Rodgers, but Donovan, racing back to defend, managed to guide it behind for a corner kick. Rodgers was presented with another golden opportunity in the 58th minute, when he was put through alone on Saunders once again, but the Englishman's wayward shot could only ripple the side netting. It was the last clear cut opportunity New York would have. When the boneheaded Roy Miller shoved and karate kicked David Beckham in the New York penalty area with just 15 minutes left to play, it was game over. Donovan stepped up to take the penalty and made no mistake, sending Rost the wrong way. Juan Agudelo had been inserted into the match just minutes prior, but failed to have any impact.
The Red Bulls can hold their heads high for the effort they put in over the course of the two game series. It's fair to say that if New York had demonstrated the same degree of commitment during the middle part of the regular season that they showed down the stretch and again on Thursday, they might not have found themselves up against the Supporters Shield winners in the playoffs. They also could have avoided what must have been a draining wild card match. As it stands, the Red Bulls made their own path more difficult than it needed to be, and were let down in the end by lapses in concentration and poor decision-making.
There's a lot to think about after a turbulent season in Harrison, but we'll leave that for the coming weeks and days. For now we'll pack up our match day gear and get ready to start all over again in March.