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Three Thoughts: New York Red Bulls clinch MLS Eastern Conference with 3-2 win over Columbus Crew

It was a win entirely characteristic of this team: simultaneously dominant and nerve-wracking.

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The New York Red Bulls are now unbeaten in 15-straight MLS games, and 19 in all competitons. They are top of the Eastern Conference, and waiting for a minor technicality to be settled next week for it to become official that they have won the East's regular season title. They are on a three game winning streak. They have the league's top scorer and top assists-man. They are, by almost every measure, the team no one wants to play right now.

And yet it feels like every game brings nothing but anxiety to RBNY's fans. The 2016 Red Bulls are really, really good right now. And also really, really unconvincing. The latest win - 3-2 over Columbus Crew - merely confirmed everything we already think we know about RBNY: the team will beat most opponents in MLS, but it will make itself and its fans sweat for the final whistle and the blessed relief of three points.

But these three thoughts start with the positive, of which there is plenty.

1. Back in the CONCACAF Champions League

The win put RBNY top of the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of NYCFC - who lost, 3-1, to D.C. United. Technically, RBNY has not clinched the East because technically NYCFC could still tie the Red Bulls' points total and steal the number one spot on tiebreakers.

mlssoccer.com

Except...well, the idea that NYCFC might end up tied on points with RBNY is not far-fetched: the Red Bulls have to travel to Philadelphia on the last day of the season, and the Red Bulls are not terrific on the road; NYCFC plays Columbus at home on the same day, and NYCFC is the heavy favorite to win that game. But the idea that a Red Bulls loss will combine with NYCFC's expected win to overturn the 13-goal advantage RBNY holds over its neighbors on goal difference: that idea is fanciful. It could happen, but it almost certainly won't.

RBNY will have to wait to be formally awarded the regular-season Eastern Conference title, because MLS must respect its own rules and the remote-but-not-impossible chance NYCFC thrashes Columbus by 10 goals or so. But let's be sensible: RBNY will be awarded that title.

So RBNY fans can go ahead and look forward to home advantage in the playoffs for at least the Conference semi-finals and final (if RBNY gets that far). And another season of CONCACAF Champions League.

The 2017 MLS season will be RBNY's most crowded yet, with CCL quarterfinals (and hopefully another round or two after that) to begin and then a CCL group stage to factor into the second half of the year.

It is an extraordinary comeback for a team that lost six of its first seven league games and was - briefly - the stand-alone worst team in MLS. On April 16, after losing in Colorado, the Red Bulls were facing an uphill battle just to be relevant this season. They achieved more than that: they are not just relevant, they are the team to beat in the East and the league heading into the playoffs - with a game to spare.

It has been a remarkable turnaround and the team, for all its manifest flaws, deserves to be celebrated and applauded for the achievement.

2. Explain yourself, PRO

The first half of this game would have been forgettable but for the referee's inexplicable decision to award no card at all when Columbus 'keeper Brad Stuver dragged Alex Muyl down in the box.


No. Card. Not a red, for an egregious foul in the box. Not a yellow, if one charitably wants to say that it was not a deliberate denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity because there were defenders lurking to challenge Muyl if he'd continued his run. No card at all for that play.

PRO is not shy about speaking out about controversial calls. This is one that needs to explained, especially if referee Edvin Jurisevic is to be allowed anywhere near the post-season.

3. Late-game troubles aren't going anywhere

Whatever happens in Philadelphia next week, the Red Bulls should head into the playoffs with confidence. They will be the top seed in the East, they have two of the best attacking players in the league (Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan) in peak form, and they have been extraordinarily consistent since July. A last-day loss in Chester shouldn't be allowed to outweigh a 15-game unbeaten streak.

But there is one troubling aspect of RBNY's consistency: consistently struggling to handle the burden of a lead. After the 70th minute, when Bradley Wright-Phillips put the Red Bulls up by three goals, the home team was cruising to three points.


There followed a period of Columbus pressure - and Adam Jahn scored in the 73rd minute. No biggie: Jesse Marsch brought Ronald Zubar into the game for Aurelien Collin. Fresh legs at the back didn't help. Harrison Afful scored in the 83rd minute.


And RBNY fans suffered through 10 minutes of watching Columbus press forward confidently, in search of the equalizer. Marsch brought in Sal Zizzo for BWP in the 88th minute, setting up five at the back to close out the game. It would be charitable to say it worked.

Columbus - the 9th-placed team in the East and likely to finish the season in that position - didn't score. A better team, a team capable of qualifying for the playoffs, probably would have taken the ample chances RBNY was offering for the match to tied, or even won, by the visitors.

It's not all that helpful to examine the specific reasons for the latest late-game wobble: the pattern is too entrenched. It now reliably happens in almost every game. If the other side can't score, the Red Bulls win: the team has three 1-0 wins in its last eight league games. If the other side can score, the Red Bulls don't lose - but they rarely look confident. In those last eight league games, the five that didn't end 1-0 to RBNY have been high-scoring draws - twice 2-2 with DCU and a 3-3 with TFC - or five-goal shootouts (the team has now posted back-to-back 3-2 wins, first over Philadelphia and now over Columbus).

Late-game anxiety seems to be here to stay.