They were close. But not close enough.
The New York Red Bulls almost clung on to take three points out of a rain-drenched PPL Park, but - in a cruel echo of their last-minute triumph over D.C. United in midweek - a goal conceded in stoppage time let Philadelphia Union claim the draw.
To add further insult, the late equalizer was a familiar foe of this season: the soft and avoidable penalty. Ibrahim Sekagya missed an attempt at a half-volleyed clearance, stuck a foot out to block an anticipated shot from Pedro Ribeiro, and effectively got kicked for his trouble.
But that take on the incident was only visible from a reverse angle replay. Referee Allen Chapman saw a defender stick a leg out and trip a forward: penalty. Sebastien Le Toux leveled the score from the spot; the Red Bulls were left to agonize over a result they would have very happily taken at kick-off but had fought vigorously to avoid for the entire second half.
Ribeiro went down easily, but no more so than Peguy Luyindula did in the first half to win the penalty that put RBNY ahead in the first place.
It was the 35th minute. Luyindula had chased down a pass from Thierry Henry but was not in a promising position: he had his back to goal and two defenders behind him. But Luyindula is RBNY's switchblade: deadly at close range. Give him space to shoot, and he's most likely to land the ball in somebody's nachos behind the goal. Crowd him and he finds ways to wriggle out of traffic and create something.
He did so on this occasion, getting a lucky bounce off Ray Gaddis to split his markers - and when he turned to follow the ball, Ethan White dragged him back. It wasn't a violent pull, certainly not enough to make Luyindula fall, but it did slow him down and kill the opportunity. And referees have a regrettable tendency not to call the foul unless someone falls over: consider the penalty called in the last game between these teams, when Eric Alexander didn't hit the deck but Maurice Edu did.
Chapman at least called a pretty consistent game. Both penalties were soft in the sense that the contact wasn't sufficient to knock a grown man off his feet, but justified in the sense that a defender played the man and not the ball - which is a foul. White was being cynical, Sekagya merely clumsy: a foul is a foul. And while a different angle may cause one to think twice about Sekagya's infraction, the referee only gets one look.
Indeed, Chapman might have called both incidents without the elaborate embellishment of the wronged parties. He had little trouble giving Ruben Bover a yellow card late in the game for two pathetic attempts at tactical fouling. Bover failed, twice, to kill a break - but Chapman saw the intent as clearly as anyone else, and issued the card once Armando had stepped in to snuff out the danger.
So neither team can blame the referee for its misfortune. The penalties were not undeserved, and they cancelled each other out anyway. In between, the teams traded goals off a couple of defensive errors: Zac MacMath misjudged the bounce of the ball (a problem for all the players on an unevenly drying pitch) and allowed a Thierry Henry shot to rebound off him and into the net in the 40th minute; Jamison Olave lost track of Ribeiro, letting the forward nip in front of him to flick a low cross past Luis Robles in the 41st minute.
The draw was a result both teams would have taken at the start. Union head coach Jim Curtin's lineup made his intentions clear: Sheanon Williams, Carlos Valdes, Sebastien Le Toux, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana - all starters for a full-strength Philly - started on the bench. Conor Casey didn't even make the match-day squad. This was a home team picked to scrap for a point, maybe steal a win on the break. The priority was clearly to keep key players fresh for the US Open Cup final, three days after this game.
Mike Petke had fewer options, lacking both home advantage and the luxury of a full squad to pick from, and on paper his starting lineup was the better team: the only deviations from the players and formations which have started the last two games were Tim Cahill up front and Armando at left back.
One suspects Petke might have rested a few players had he known he was going to be playing a B-squad, especially since the heavy rain that delayed the start of the game turned the field into a swamp. It is hard to run on muddy ground and Petke yanked his stars as soon as they showed any discomfort. First out was Henry in the 55th minute; Cahill followed 20 minutes later.
Unfortunately, while the Red Bulls powered down as the game progressed, Philly strengthened. Le Toux entered the game in the 48th minute, Maidana followed in the 61st and Nogueira joined in the 70th. The home team ran rampant over the visitors for the duration of the second half.
RBNY had controlled possession for much of the first half, but struggled to do anything with it. Tim Cahill can play the target forward role very well, and his ability in the air was suited to the conditions: he repeatedly beat his marker to the ball in the air to flick-on behind the defense for...nobody. RBNY wasted a lot of opportunity for lack of a player willing or able to anticipate Cahill's intentions up front.
This is the third game running we've seen Petke deploy the 4-2-3-1, and the third game in a row in which goals have arrived in spite of it. Against Sporting KC, the team rode a penalty and a wonder-strike from the captain to victory; against D.C. United, it was a last-gasp shot that sneaked by Bill Hamid largely on balance of probability (how many unlikely saves can one man make?); and against the Union, another penalty and another moment of quick-thinking from Henry (abetted by MacMath's misfortune) had brought RBNY a lead that was certainly deserved at half-time, but which the team had once again achieved without great fluidity in the final third.
Unfortunately, the two goal deficit shook the Union reserves from their slumber. They got a goal back almost as soon as Henry had put the Red Bulls up by two, and the home team dominated the second half. Wenger had created most of Philly's opportunities in the first half, charging down the left flank and making Chris Duvall seem a lot less competent than he had looked in his preceding two matches. After half-time, with Le Toux on the field, the Union attacked from the right, taking full advantage of RBNY's stand-in left back, Armando.
But the Red Bulls found ways to cling on to their lead. Luis Robles, of course, had to do big things to compensate for an overwhelmed back line. And the pressure only worsened once Cahill was replaced by Saer Sene, who is in urgent need of a competitive reserve league to regain the technique that appears to have atrophied during his injury-blighted 2013. His first touch is abysmal and he lacks the pace to threaten any defense on the break. He needs minutes to get himself back into shape, but the combination of his persistent rustiness and some tactical naivete on Bover's part meant RBNY lacked reliable outlets up front to take the pressure off the back line.
Although Sekagya is responsible for missing the clearance at the end - if he'd connected, there would have been no penalty - few Red Bulls will look back on the sequence leading to the equalizer with great pleasure. Dax McCarty, despite ample evidence Sene's touch just wasn't up to it, tried to play a ball out of the defensive third to the forward's feet. The pass was a little wide, Sene made no effort to chase and even less effort to close down the ball carrier once Philly retrieved possession. Luyindula, perhaps expecting Sene to make the challenge, also stood back.
The result of this standing around was Fabinho effectively got to take a free kick inside the Red Bulls' half. Watch the tape: he collects the errant pass, stumbles over it, looks up, realizes no one is challenging him, runs around the ball to get the angle for a left foot shot, takes a few steps back, and then trots forward to launch one last cross at Ribeiro's head. In total, Fabinho is in possession - without pressure - for roughly five seconds, which is a lot of time when there are only about three minutes left in the game.
Still, the mistake may do the entire team some good. The win would have been a crowning stroke of luck in a series of games that has been uncharacteristically kind to RBNY. The mistake is not a disaster: the Red Bulls are still above the red line, and none of the teams below them in the Eastern Conference gained any ground.
Nor, however, did RBNY take even a slight step away from the pack. It is still just one point ahead of fifth and sixth place in the East - every team from fourth through ninth in the Conference drew this week. The only meaningful change to the standings is New England consolidating its hold on third place with a win over Montreal, which is on the brink of mathematical elimination from the playoffs (L'Impact is 16 points behind fifth place with six games to play).
So nothing has changed. The Red Bulls still need to scrap for every point and hope to hit October's three-game home stand against Houston, Toronto and Columbus in a position no worse than it is in now: in control of its destiny as long as it can keep winning.
Dauntingly, the next couple of league games are against Seattle (at home) and LA Galaxy (away): the two best teams in MLS at the moment. RBNY has picked up seven points from the last nine it has contested, without really killing off its opponents. It saw its luck run out this time. But if there was a time to let a last minute lapse in concentration drop points in this run-in, it was this game.
Including their CONCACAF Champions League fixtures, the Red Bulls will play three of their next four matches on the road. They have just wrapped up three games in a week: a little tiredness at the very end of that stretch is hardly surprising. But the tiredness cost them two points that would have opened up a little breathing room in the league. They now face four matches in 11 days starting on 9/17, spread across four different cities and three different countries. They will only get more tired from here. The games, however, will only get more important.
CCL qualification will require at least three points from the next two games. Feeling like they are still in the playoff race at the beginning of October (it's a tight race; regardless of results, RBNY will be in the playoff race at the beginning of October, but it may not feel that way) will probably require at least three points from the next two matches also. Columbus has New England and Montreal at home coming next; Philadelphia has Houston at home followed by DC on the road - neither schedule is as tough as playing Seattle and LA.
Mike Petke will hope his players summon the memory of this game the next time they are hanging on for points at the end. And he will hope the next time is in the very near future.
The players are clearly working hard for each other (at least until, you know, the last minute of the game just concluded). The new formation is bringing the right sort of results without ever delivering a performance one would describe as overwhelmingly good. There is a lot of room for improvement and increasingly less margin for error.
RBNY can't afford to dwell on this result, but it ought not to forget it either: it should be the one that immediately comes to mind the next time the legs are burning but the game requires just a little more effort to keep the ball out of the box and three points in the bag.