The New York Red Bulls are teetering, let there be no doubt.
The Supporters' Shield stopped being a realistic objective some time ago, but the feeling has long been that this team started this season with one priority: MLS Cup. The problem, of course, is that to win MLS Cup, a team must first make the playoffs, and RBNY remains far from certain of a top-five finish in the Eastern Conference.
Fortunately, so do all but two teams in the East. Unfortunately, the Red Bulls have to play those two teams (Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United), as well as Shield favorites Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy, in five of their remaining nine games (KC will pop up twice before the regular season is over).
If you're an optimist, you look at the schedule, see six of nine remaining games at home, and see the Red Bulls aren't done yet. They won six of their last eight games to win the Shield last year. And that was after losing 3-2 on the road to Chivas USA, one of the worst teams in MLS 2013.
This year, they have just lost 2-0 on the road, on a sweltering afternoon, to the best team in the East.
There are still nine matches left, most of them at home. And "below the line" means being two points behind New England (until recently, an objectively dreadful team), Toronto FC (just responded to losing to the Revs by firing the entire coaching staff), and Columbus (just lost to Montreal, aka the worst team in MLS). This is not a reason to panic.
So there is plenty of fuel for an optimist's fire left in this season.
But not this game. This match against DC was one for the pessimists. It doesn't matter how bad the other teams in the East are, if RBNY plays like this with any regularity for the rest of the year it will miss the post-season for the first time since 2009. (Point of information: this season is NOT like 2009. RBNY got 21 points and finished dead-last in the standings. A near-miss run at the playoffs - if this is what this season turns out to be - is not worthy of comparison.)
There is sufficient margin for error to let a bad game or two slip by between now and the end of the year, but no more than that - and this was a bad loss.
One early exchange foreshadowed the problems ahead: Fabian Espindola spun past Ibrahim Sekagya in the second minute, breaching the back line and charging into the box to crack a shot at goal that Luis Robles tipped past the near post. It happens. Espindola is hard to handle, as most of the Red Bulls should know, since most of them played alongside him last season.
In itself, an Espindola breakaway isn't too bad, and Jamison Olave did very well to get back to cover the danger and cut the angle for the shot down to something improbably narrow. Yes, Robles made a save - but Espindola was shooting into a space about the width of the ball. Good work by the 'keeper and the center back to minimize the danger.
The troubling part was Sekagya's reaction to being beaten on the turn. He didn't immediately give chase, but threw his hands in the air to complain to...Roy Miller? The linesman? We may never know. The point, however, was perhaps this Red Bulls back line looked a little too quickly and easily flustered on this hot day in DC.
This proved to be the case. DCU picked up on RBNY's plan to play a high line pretty quickly, and since there was plenty of evidence to suggest Espindola and Luis Silva could more than hold their own in a foot race with any of the Red Bulls' back four (and Sekagya in particular), the home team wasn't shy about simply punting the ball long and seeing whether its opponent could keep up.
This was the formula behind both DC's goals. In the 57th minute, Bill Hamid launched a goal kick long, Espindola flicked it on, and Silva sprinted after Sekagya. This sort of situation arises several times in any game. What doesn't often happen: the center back (Sekagya) checks his run, the 'keeper (Robles) doesn't cover the distance to the ball in time, and the attacker (Silva) accepts the chance to shoot at an empty net.
It was an embarrassing goal. Robles took responsibility for the error, attributing it to his underestimation of the speed of the bounce of the ball off the turf. But it was a series of mistakes: from Olave's complete misjudgment of where he needed to be to beat Espindola to a header, to Sekagya's decision to follow his 'keeper's instruction to slow down (rather than, say, keeping his body between Silva and the ball to at least slow the forward's momentum), to Robles's mistaken conviction that the ball was going to skip forward on the bounce and accelerate away from Silva.
The second goal, scored by Eddie Johnson in stoppage time, was similar: a long ball which the entire defense simply watched soar past them, before turning to notice Johnson was onside and in possession. In fairness, the team was tired, frustrated and out of ideas by that point. DC's second goal was scored largely because RBNY could no longer be bothered to try (with the exception of Robles; he has been tortured so many times this season by his defense, his shouldering of the blame for the first goal is tantamount to Stockholm syndrome).
The Red Bulls had the chances to win, or at least draw, this match - but ran into a couple of familiar problems: Bill Hamid playing to the full extent of his ability (he also stonewalled RBNY on its last visit to RFK this year); and Tim Cahill continuing his troubling lack of form in front of goal.
Bradley Wright-Phillips was credited with five chances by the stats-keepers, but he really had two solid shots: one missed, and the other was stopped by a magnificent save from Hamid. Give credit where it is due: Bill Hamid can stop shots extremely well, and he does so with distressing frequency against the Red Bulls.
But Cahill had chances too - the same number as BWP. He managed just one shot on target, and rattled his best opportunity off the post.
In a match where 5' 8" BWP was able to get at least two decent chances to score with his head, an in-form Cahill might have been expected to victimize the DC center backs, neither of whom was outstanding at picking up the movement of the RBNY forwards.
But Cahill is not in form, not as a goal scorer. He has, perhaps, spent a little too long playing the box-to-box role required of him in the current set-up. He couldn't put his chances away against CD FAS in CONCACAF Champions League, and he didn't do any better against DC.
If there is a time to get him more involved in the attack, and therefore warmed up for a goal-scoring role in the playoffs, it is now. RBNY could afford to drop points in this game, insofar as it still has sufficient matches remaining to get the 15-18 points it will likely need to make the post-season. Perhaps this is why Mike Petke once again persisted with the starting lineup long after it appeared to have proven itself in need of a change.
In fairness, the team's best chances came in the latter part of the first half, after Cahill was able to shake off defensive duties and get forward more frequently. With Thierry Henry playing consistently quite deep, the combined presence of BWP and Cahill as targets in the box opened up the necessary options for more, and better, chances to be created.
And Petke clung to this memory, and his original formation, for as long as he could. No changes followed DC's opening goal. Perhaps they would have happened (DC scored very close to the 60th minute, the traditional first substitution moment for many managers, Petke included) had Chris Duvall not pulled up lame.
The injury forced Petke into a change, and - as is so often the case - he reached for the player he seems to trust the most in times of need: Eric Alexander. Ambroise Oyongo had not been troubling DC's right back, Sean Franklin, too greatly, so it wasn't madness to bring Alexander into midfield and have Oyongo slide back into defense.
Nor was it crazy to bring Sekagya, who simply never looked comfortable, out for Saer Sene, and switch to three at the back. But that didn't happen until the 80th minute, and 10 minutes of additional firepower wasn't enough.
This is, of course, hindsight. RBNY had more possession and more chances than DC. This was, in part, because DC figured out its best route to goal was long and direct, so the home team wasn't as invested in holding the ball as might have been expected. And the Red Bulls weren't too shy about giving it back anyway. But it was also because RBNY was playing pretty well: coping at the back, testing DC's defense often.
On another day, even with the defensive errors, the Red Bulls perhaps get a draw or even a win from the sustained pressure they applied in the last 20 minutes of the first half. On another day - a less hot one - perhaps the VERY late substitutions perk up the team for a dominating closing 10 minutes. But on this day, with Hamid equal to every shot that didn't miss the target and the defense as prone to not quite getting it right as it has ever been, the late adjustment to the tactics felt like it was left too late.
Petke's last substitution, Peguy Luyindula in for Tim Cahill, didn't happen until the last minute of the game. Luyindula is not an impact sub: he has no superlative physical attributes. He's a clever player, who can make the right pass or the right run, but he's not the man you bring on to punish a tired team with great speed, strength or aerial ability. It was a puzzling time to bring him in - especially since, without Cahill, the move effectively reduced RBNY's options in the box by one.
As stated, this was a day for the pessimists: the defense was too fragile; the attack lacked precision or power; the starting tactics and players were allowed to stay on the field well past the point when they were effective.
It may yet prove an even worse day if Chris Duvall misses any significant time due to the injury which forced him from the field. This might have been his best game to date for RBNY. He was largely blameless for any defensive weakness and responsible for the (left-footed!) cross that BWP almost turned past Hamid with his head.
Petke's reshuffle did prove Ambroise Oyongo can play right back pretty well (just ignore his role in Johnson's goal - it was late, everyone was tired), so perhaps an injury to Duvall doesn't have to mean a regression to some of the players whose slapstick antics earlier in the season got the Red Bulls into this hole in the first place. (Except, of course, Oyongo will be playing for Cameroon while RBNY addresses its next two games.)
For the optimists, there is the hope this latest setback might finally prove to be the turning point this year has long needed. Cahill will soon be off for international duty, perhaps the Socceroos can get him scoring again. This loss ought to eliminate any danger of complacency for the next game (against Sporting KC) and the one after that - the opportunity for revenge over DC United.
The team will have no shortage of chances to prove itself worthy of a playoff spot: most of its remaining games are against the best teams in MLS. But being worthy is a subjective claim based on presumed quality of opponent. Being in the playoffs comes from having a better record than at least five other teams in the East.
RBNY would prefer to have the latter and worry about the former in November. Instead, it will need to beat playoff-caliber opposition, several times, if it is going to get the chance to meet and beat those teams again in the post-season.
This was the first hurdle in a brutal run-in. It did not go well. This does not mean the season is over or the playoffs out of reach. But it does mean the winning needs to start up again, pronto.