It should have been different.
The New York Red Bulls stumbled out of CONCACAF Champions League in a time-honored fashion for MLS teams: by sending an under-strength team to get a result on a foreign field. Indeed, RBNY was so committed to the strategy, this was its second consecutive iteration for the club in this tournament.
A week ago, the Red Bulls let a team entirely comprised of reserves battle a full-strength Montreal Impact in Canada, and they came up just short of an unexpected result. The team lost 1-0 for no worse reason than it was just as bad at finishing as L'Impact (RBNY missed more chances; Montreal missed better ones).
This week, for a game it had to win, RBNY was represented by a stronger team than it had sent to Canada, but not strong enough to get the goal required to win the match and stay alive in the tournament.
It could have worked out differently: if Ambroise Oyongo had put a shot a little bit wider of the 'keeper; if Peguy Luyindula hadn't taken one step and one touch too many chasing a through ball and taken himself from a position of promise to one requiring improbable circumstance from which to score; if Ruben Bover had directed a late header into the net instead of the net-minder. And, yes, it certainly could have been different if Saer Sene had converted the 35th minute penalty kick (won by the admirable Oyongo) he skied over the crossbar.
CD FAS did not have much going forward. Perhaps going a goal down would have lured the team out of a largely defensive, modestly counter-attacking mindset - but that would have suited RBNY, who set up in the now obligatory 4-2-3-1 with pace on the flanks, guile in the middle, and whatever Saer Sene represents up front.
Sene is the scapegoat for this performance because he missed the spot kick that probably would have been enough for the Red Bulls to progress. If that kick goes in, one grudgingly concedes that RBNY did just enough to get the result required. And with a glut of important games in the league and CCL, just enough is really all the Red Bulls were in position to do.
Mike Petke can't magically make a penalty go in the net. So the miss is on Sene, though one wonders who made the decision to let him take it in the first place. It was one of many curious decisions that, with a hefty dose of hindsight, leave one feeling the Red Bulls could have done more to get the result they needed.
Peguy Luyindula would have been the more obvious choice to step up to the spot. Perhaps he wasn't feeling it. Perhaps, as Thierry Henry once did for him, he wanted to let a man who was drifting to the wrong side of fans' opinions redeem himself. It was a risk that didn't pay off, and may have greater consequence if the inevitable blow to Sene's confidence isn't shaken off.
In that respect - the risk that didn't pay off - the missed penalty was RBNY's CCL campaign writ small. Nothing has worked out quite as planned. In the opening match of the group, against CD FAS at Red Bull Arena, Petke picked a team and a formation to score a lot of goals, but they didn't work out as planned. In the second game, the coach sent the reserves to grab a point or a narrow loss, and Montreal fumbled the chance to get a big win.
The Red Bulls had been lucky in those games: getting adequate results (in terms of meeting objectives of the game plan) with largely inadequate performances. In the third game of CCL, RBNY's luck ran out.
There are positives to be taken from this performance, without question. The Red Bulls didn't lose because, for the third game running in CCL, the defense held up pretty well.
Armando and Damien Perrinelle are a capable center back pairing, prone to the occasional mistake but new enough in partnership together that errors can be attributed to lack of mutual understanding. Richard Eckersley put in his second surprisingly good shift at left back - at times, he was RBNY's greatest attacking threat, which is no small thing in a match where Oyongo and Luyindula were playing well.
Elsewhere on the pitch, Ian Christianson popped up from time to time with a good pass (he seems to have a decent eye for switching play with long balls from the back) or smart move on the ball. Substitutes Eric Stevenson and Ruben Bover did not lack for effort.
Bover, in particular, played well - as a target forward.
The frustrating aspect of this performance is not that the Red Bulls were bounced out of CCL at the group stage - they were less clear favorites to advance than any MLS team in the tournament except Sporting Kansas City. It was that RBNY got bounced by their weakest opponent, and that the team appeared incapable or unwilling to put in the extra effort required to eke out a win when the initial game plan faltered.
Prior to the game, much was made of the club's commitment to CCL. We were told about chartered flights, 4.5 star hotels (do the players normally bunk in hostels for road trips?), private chefs, and that "90% of the squad" was on the plane.
This seemed slightly unnecessary at the time. Why bring 90% of the squad when only 18 can be part of the match day squad? Mike Petke reiterated this point in his post-match comments, saying he'd brought every player who was fit to travel: 21 in total. From this we deduce Jamison Olave, Ibrahim Sekagya and Roy Miller got dragged down to El Salvador to cheer on their teammates.
We were told Thierry Henry, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Tim Cahill were left behind because of injury. And Luis Robles didn't make the trip because he has a baby due any minute.
The problem with these post-hoc explanations is that they are mostly irrelevant. Few people following this team closely would have expected to see Olave, Sekagya, Miller or Robles in the starting lineup, or even on the bench - their replacements for CCL have all performed entirely adequately. In the case of Robles, starting him over Ryan Meara would have been interpreted as lack of confidence in RBNY's back-up 'keeper, a fan favorite still.
As for Henry and BWP, we understand their minutes are being managed to keep them fresh and fit for the league campaign. Cahill was the surprise omission: he only played 30 minutes against Seattle last weekend, and everyone knew RBNY needed goals in El Salvador.
After the Sounders game, it appeared Mike Petke was a coaching genius. He had sent the reserves to play CCL because he could afford to lose that game. In so doing, he had won a rest day for his starters. They beat a tired Seattle team comfortably, and Petke managed to use Cahill sparingly, Luyindula and Sene not at all. The necessary firepower to cruise past CD FAS seemed to have been deliberately kept to one side, and everything was coming up Petke.
But Cahill didn't travel to El Salvador. Instead of a 4-4-2, pairing Cahill and Sene up top (as had worked pretty well in the CCL opener), we got the 4-2-3-1 with Sene as the lone forward (as had worked not at all against Montreal).
Petke put good players on the field in El Salvador, but the point of the exercise was to score goals. Sene has looked rusty since he arrived. He needs time and opportunity to build confidence. Playing him in a role he found impossible to perform barely a week ago did not seem like a wise decision.
As it turned out, Sene stuck more faithfully to his position than he had done against Montreal, but this merely exposed his shortcomings. He wasn't much of a target for crosses from the flanks (and once Lloyd Sam came out of the game, there weren't as many crosses as the lineup had initially implied), and he wasn't quick enough - of foot or of thought - to break the FAS offside trap.
If the penalty had been converted, or a goal had been found from somewhere, maybe you leave Sene out there to keep trying to work it out. But RBNY needed a goal, which meant it needed a plan B. Petke's plan B for this game? Not Tim Cahill off the bench (because injury). Not a more attacking formation or at least a shift to put another man up front to partner Sene. Instead, the coach withdrew Sene in the 72nd minute for Ruben Bover.
Bover has been a lot of things for RBNY over the two seasons he's been with the club. He started as an attacking wide man, sort of expected to be what Lloyd Sam is now. He dropped out of favor, and we were told he was quietly being turned into a central midfielder of some ability. He's largely been used this season as an occasional late-game substitute for a flank player, usually coming on with a defensive assignment.
He would appear, insofar as he seems to be tasked with a different role almost every time he takes the field, to be the man tagged to back up Eric Alexander as the team's Swiss Army knife.
He took over forward duties from Sene in Montreal, and did so again in El Salvador. That was plan B: plan Bover.
Again, just as there would be little complaint if Sene had made his penalty, Petke would appear vindicated if Bover had planted his late-in-the-game header past the 'keeper.
But he didn't. The other substitutions were Stevenson for Sam early in the first half (Sam reportedly picked up a muscle strain) and Alexander for Dax McCarty around the hour mark. Neither precipitated a change in tactics.
Chasing the game, desperately needing a goal, faced with an opponent increasingly content to sit back and defend (CD FAS is having a terrible start to its season; one look at its results suggests this is a team that might be very happy with a 0-0 - it has had three in six league games already), the change Petke went for to turn the match around was replacing an out-of-sorts forward with a reserve-team midfielder.
It wasn't enough. It could have been different, if a shot or two had gone in. But it wasn't. The Red Bulls effectively doubled down on their ineffective strategy and banged their over-caffeinated heads against a wall made of pink-and-blue shirted Salvadoran Primera Division players.
We've seen this stubborn refusal to switch away from a tactic before. We've heard the explanation that there just weren't players available to justify any greater tactical switch before. Neither was convincing in the past, neither is particularly convincing now.
Mike Petke is still learning his trade as a coach. He should have been MLS Coach of the Year for winning the Supporters' Shield as a rookie. He is a more astute coach than he gets credit for, and he should get the chance to lead this team into more CCLs in future.
He's a man for whom loyalty is a point of pride. The rehashed excuses after a disappointing result more likely come from a place of not wanting to throw players or club under the bus. Loyalty cuts both ways, and Petke takes his obligation to his team and his employer seriously. But we know he learns from his mistakes because his actions speak louder than his words: under-performing players get dropped; misfiring tactics (eventually) get changed.
Any failure is disappointing, but this one will be forgotten if RBNY makes the playoffs and makes a run at MLS Cup. Indeed, given the number of wins likely required just to make the playoffs (the Red Bulls have won five of their last eight games and probably still need to win three of the remaining five), Petke will deserve praise just for making the post-season.
But this specific failure to advance in CCL may have a consequence that cuts a little deeper than the embarrassment of being quite possibly the only MLS club not to make the quarterfinals of this year's tournament.
For this observer, CCL felt like one of the few remaining carrots RBNY had to lure Thierry Henry away from retirement.
The captain was never in New York for the money: he spent most of his soft-drink millions on the apartment he bought when he arrived. He is here because it appealed to him to play in America, to live in Manhattan, and to take a club that had never won anything to a new level.
He led the team to that elusive first trophy last season. Whatever happens this year - and another trophy is merely unlikely, not impossible - he doesn't have much left to play for at RBNY: another MLS season, another trudge through 34 regular season games, possibly concluding with a league title the country seems determined to downplay; another effort to win four or five matches in November because that's what counts apparently.
He might be up for it. He might not. Increasingly, it would appear not. He has set up a future in media for himself this year (the BBC would doubtless he delighted to have him back after his work as a pundit during the World Cup). He's got children he might want to spend more time with. He's one of the few players in the world who won't really get a kick out of lining up against Frank Lampard, David Villa or Kaka - been there, done that.
But if RBNY had held its own in CCL this year and qualified for the quarterfinals - well, that is something Henry has never done before. Maybe he would have been tempted to hang on for another year to see how that worked out.
It's speculation, of course. We certainly will never know now. Henry's focus, as with everyone else on or in support of this team, is on the MLS post-season. Because the team has screwed up the chase for every other trophy it was in for this year (or, in the case of CCL, next year).
Fourth time lucky?