The New York Red Bulls' last game of 2014 was its season writ small: every time it seemed they were out of it, they found a way back in. Until they just ran out of time to keep it going.
Six games without a win to start the year was frustrating, but 25 minutes watching RBNY hammer a bunkering New England without reward was agony. Tim Cahill brought the sweet relief of a goal in the 26th minute, simply refusing to give up on the ball after his first touch had allowed Jose Goncalves to get in position to regain possession. The 2013 MLS Defender of the Year needed a moment to regain his balance and wait for the bouncing ball to settle, which was Cahill's one chance to make something happen.
He took it: eyes never losing sight of the ball, he reached his left foot between Goncalves's legs, and guided a gentle shot past Bobby Shuttleworth.
It wasn't a pretty goal, much like RBNY wasn't pretty as it stuttered and stumbled through a series of misfires and false starts in search of consistency through the most of the regular season. But it was enough to keep hope alive.
Next, the inevitable stumble. In the 41st minute, the Revs worked a short corner routine to create space for Chris Tierney to launch a cross into the box from a more dangerous position than the by-line. The ball landed on Charlie Davies - maybe glancing off his arm, maybe skimming off Jermaine Jones; perhaps both - and skewed through a thicket of falling bodies into the net.
This season's Red Bulls have never allowed fans to get too comfortable. Even the pattern of this series was counter to the form that got RBNY into the post-season: late in the year, the team found its best form at home, but remained generally subdued on the road. Yet here we were, in what turned out to be the last game of 2014, watching RBNY boss the Revolution in Gillette Stadium after losing to the same opponent at Red Bull Arena.
And despite that, the Red Bulls went into half-time with the game tied, 1-1.
Still, when the second-half kicked off, one more goal was all that was needed to carry RBNY into extra time.
One more goal.
Red Bulls' fans have been calling for one more goal throughout this playoff run.
We begged for it in the 90th minute of the "knockout round" (isn't every round a knockout round in the playoffs?), when RBNY was knotted 1-1 with Sporting Kansas City. And Ambroise Oyongo surged onto a perfect pass from Peguy Luyindula to hit a decidedly imperfect cross that BWP converted into the match-winner.
We wanted one more in the second half of the Eastern Conference semi-final first leg, to make a 1-0 lead over D.C. United a little more comfortable, and the prospect of getting out of the second leg with something still to play for more feasible. Luyindula answered the call in the 73rd minute, catching Thierry Henry's eye at the perfect moment to sprint past the back line and on to the end of the captain's lofted pass over the top.
We needed one in the second half of the second leg of that series, when DC had pulled to within a goal of at least forcing extra time. Luyindula connected with another Henry pass to settle nerves and set RBNY on the path to the next round.
In the first leg of this Eastern Conference final, it was the quest for one more that brought Tim Cahill onto the field, changed the shape of the team, and opened up sufficient space for New England to take a 2-1 win out of Harrison.
Of course the last 45 minutes of the season came down to needing just one more goal. Twice.
The Revs weren't sitting back anymore. The early tactic - pack the defensive third and invite RBNY to attack - had been abandoned shortly after the first goal was conceded. The teams were going toe-to-toe. Jermaine Jones let the Red Bulls off lightly in the 48th minute, when he crashed a shot wide after launching a one-man breakaway off moment of carelessness by Lloyd Sam.
Sam made amends a few minutes later, looking to find Cahill with an early cross for a knockdown header to Luyindula - who was offside. But Cahill missed Sam's cross, and the ball surprised Andrew Farrell, who fumbled the clearance and effectively played exactly the pass to Luyindula that the Red Bulls had been hoping for: Peguy took his chance, played onside by the unintended back pass. 2-1.
Henry calmed his teammates' celebrations. RBNY still needed one more goal to progress.
It was the same story when Charlie Davies BWP'd his way into space between a five-man back line and nodded home another equalizer. There was the captain at the restart, one finger raised, gesturing to his team: one more goal.
It never came, but not for want of trying.
If Cahill had bagged a chance created before the Revs' equalizer, it all might have been different. Henry flipped another pass over the top, similar to his contribution to RBNY's opener, and Cahill had options. Perhaps, if a heavy touch hadn't complicated his work in giving the Red Bulls' their first lead, he might not have tried to first-time a shot past Shuttleworth on this occasion. But he did, and he's not wrong to back his ability to pluck a ball out of the air at the first attempt - it just didn't work out this time.
Davies's second equalizer came in the 70th minute, and the Red Bulls filled the last 20 minutes of their year with a season's worth of might-have-beens.
Ibrahim Sekagya got very close with a header, and less so with a shot. And the captain had one last chance to extend the season, but Shuttleworth was quick off his line and the referee saw nothing untoward about two players contesting a 50/50 ball in the box. On another day, maybe Henry gets a penalty out of that collision, but not this day.
The season ended, fittingly, with a fight: players letting off steam in stoppage time, using an Oyongo tackle as a pretext for some shoving. These Red Bulls have been fighting all season - usually against their own inconsistencies. Hardly surprising they weren't ready to stop scrapping just because time had run out on their last game of 2014.
It is disappointing to see RBNY out of the playoffs. In hindsight's unforgiving stare, one might point to all manner of reasons for it.
Oyongo did a sub-par job of handling Teal Bunbury, most memorably in the sequence leading to the Revs' opening goal of the first leg, but the problems persisted throughout the second game as well. This doesn't mean the Cameroonian is not capable of being a high-quality left back in due course, though he still seems a much more exciting prospect on the wing than in defense.
For this match, and the last, RBNY certainly missed Roy Miller. One should, however, probably temper that statement with the understanding that Miller was suspended for kicking a man in the head (close enough, anyway). He might have had just as hard a time with Bunbury. It is entirely possible Bunbury is simply a much better right-winger than is generally credited.
Up front, RBNY didn't miss Bradley Wright-Phillips as much as might have been expected. Cahill did a lot to remind fans of his value as a player. Yes, he missed chances over the course of 90 minutes. No, he is not as good as BWP at creating those chances for himself. But he scored, and he was one good kick away from getting a second. If he had converted his big opportunity in the second half, this entire report would be about Tim Cahill, Metro legend.
Didn't happen. BWP's absence was felt, however, in the pattern of Mike Petke's substitutions: late, and without obvious effect.
Withdrawing Sekagya - a tall and physical presence on set pieces - for Connor Lade in the 86th minute seemed to be little more than a play for fresh energy than any significant tactical advantage. Throwing Ruben Bover on for Eric Alexander in stoppage time was basically praying for a miracle. That Petke never found cause to reach for Saer Sene, who spent two and a half seasons with New England, suggests the big man may not be part of the coach's future plans.
If there was one moment to give Sene a chance to prove himself, it was surely in the last 10 minutes or so of a game being played on his old home ground. It seems a long time ago now, but Cahill and Sene paired together pretty well against CD FAS in CONCACAF Champions League, displaying promising mutual understanding, though both were lacking confidence in their finishing.
It was not to be.
In fairness, it is probably time to stop second-guessing Mike Petke's tactics. He has coached this team to its first major trophy in his first season, and its best post-season run since 2008 in his second year. The reason RBNY is not playing for MLS Cup next week is not because Saer Sene didn't get a run, or Connor Lade is shorter than Ibrahim Sekagya, or Ruben Bover hardly had enough time to break a sweat on the field.
Nor is it because Petke made some tremendous tactical gaffe. Yes, not reminding BWP he was a yellow card away from a suspension before the first leg turned out to be costly. Yes, the Red Bulls rolled into the second leg with essentially zero squad depth, due to the accumulated absences of Miller and BWP. Yes, Petke would probably have instructed the team to protect the 1-1 draw at Red Bull Arena if he'd known they could score two in New England.
But Petke put out a team that did enough to win - or at least not lose - both legs of this series. There are two major reasons RBNY isn't playing in MLS Cup this year. The first is simply luck: in the first leg, Allen Chapman went easy on Jermaine Jones, not so easy on BWP - and the Red Bulls hit the road with a very important piece of their team denied them, while Jones bounced and flounced around the pitch for another 90 minutes. (He is danger of turning himself into a caricature: at one point during the second leg, he stepped on the ball, fell over, and flailed around looking very much as though he believed he might get a free kick for his trouble.)
A couple of refereeing decisions go the Red Bulls' way (like that early penalty shout denied in the first leg, or if Baldomero Toledo had a clear view of Davies's first goal and decided it was off his arm), and this series goes the other way.
This is, of course, what is meant by a close series. The little things - often beyond the control of either team - end up deciding the matter. Neither team was markedly superior to the other, but the Revs scored four goals and RBNY only scored three. Ultimately, the Red Bulls didn't take their chances, and the Revolution did. Most notably, Teal Bunbury - man of the series in this writer's estimation - did, setting the Revs on course for victory by scoring the first, and best, of the seven goals the teams managed to get.
In the end, that one extraordinary strike separated the teams. On aggregate, the Red Bulls simply never caught up to it; they never held an overall lead in the series; they never conjured an equivalent moment of magic. It was the second, and perhaps more important, reason the Revs are though and RBNY is not.
For the 19th time in its history, this club finishes the year without the biggest MLS trophy of them all. The off-season looks like it could be one of the more turbulent in recent memory: Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill (who isn't talking like a man planning on sticking around at the moment) could be gone. Subtract just those two players from the squad, and the team is rebuilding.
Furthermore, Jamison Olave, Ibrahim Sekagya, and Peguy Luyindula are all at a stage in their careers where retirement may be appealing. The Expansion Draft could steal away a player or two. And we have no idea what effect the pending CBA negotiations will have on the usual off-season contract negotiations and frantic cap-balancing (historically, not a RBNY strength).
It is frustrating to see this team come close to a triumphant finish to what may soon be regarded as the end of an era. It is frustrating to know the Red Bulls could have beaten New England, could at least have kept the dream alive into December, but didn't. It is frustrating to reflect on the missed chances and blown calls that ultimately cost RBNY a shot at MLS Cup.
But there is no entitlement to a grand finale. All one can ask is for the players to seem as committed to the cause as the fans, and that they fight to the final whistle. This year, they were almost fighting after the final whistle.
The New York Red Bulls have never have had a satisfying outcome in the last game of the season. This year is no different. But if the biggest criticism of the team in the final analysis is that it was on the wrong end of a couple of bad refereeing decisions and Saer Sene didn't get a few minutes...well, it's been a pretty good season.
This is the team that couldn't buy a win for its first six games. This is the team that got bounced out of US Open Cup in its first outing, and the one that mailed in its CONCACAF Champions League campaign. This is the team that only snuck into the playoffs because it won almost as many games in its last 10 matches (six) as it did in its first 24 (seven).
But it was still in the hunt for MLS Cup with 20 minutes to go in the league's penultimate game of the year, and it could have - maybe should have - got through to the final.
It's not the ending the team wanted, perhaps not even the ending it deserved, but throughout the season and throughout this final game, RBNY shrugged off the disappointment and picked itself up to run as it hard as it could at its opponent.
That's not all you can ask of a team, but it is a quality that recommends a club to its supporters. There will be some new faces in the squad next year, and many of those who depart will be sorely missed, but as long as the next edition of this club shows the same character as that of the present, there is reason to look forward to the future rather than dwell on the past.
Roll on 2015.