It has been a season of twists and turns for the New York Red Bulls. From the pratfall start to the season to a 15-game unbeaten streak in the league that has been peppered with blown leads. It was inevitable, therefore, that these Red Bulls turned in another topsy-turvy 90 minutes for the last home game of the regular season. In the end, a 3-2 win over Columbus Crew has (almost certainly) clinched the team top spot in the Eastern Conference.
We always make it interesting don't we? Sorry for the potential heart attacks guys! Seriously though, great win against a good team. #RBNY— Dax McCarty (@DaxMcCarty11) October 16, 2016
It was a listless first half, enlivened only by a botched penalty call and subsequently botched penalty. Sacha Kljestan saw his spot-kick saved by Brad Stuver, after the 'keeper had foolishly felled Alex Muyl inside his own area, but somehow managed to stay on the pitch.
Wild turn of events in New Jersey. First, Stuver makes an absolute mess of what should have been an easy play and concedes a penalty. pic.twitter.com/lENkKu4ngw— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) October 16, 2016
Kljestan's kick would have been saved by any 'keeper, but it was shocking that it was saved by one that had just committed perhaps the most obvious and deliberate DOGSO foul ever seen at Red Bull Arena.
But Kljestan bails him out with an awful penalty which he then dribbles out for a goal kick! pic.twitter.com/Ud4mOZI5yj— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) October 16, 2016
In the second half, Columbus started stronger but fell behind in the 53rd minute. Alex Muyl and Chris Duvall opened up some space on the right; Duvall squared to Kljestan, who squared it to Mike Grella. And the Long Island legend one-touched his shot past Stuver.
After that, it was the BWP show. Five minutes after Grella scored, the Red Bulls worked the ball out of their own half. Bradley Wright-Phillips set Alex Muyl on a run down the left flank, and scampered after his teammate. Muyl played BWP in behind the back line, but the pass took the striker too wide. To get even close to goal, he had to dribble into traffic. He had no obvious pass, no obvious shot. After a feint to his right didn't fox the defense, he cut back to his left and surprised everyone with a shot that had no business being attempted, let alone squeezing through the only space it had if it was to get to the net - between Brad Stuver's knees.
Twelve minutes after that, BWP got his brace. His first goal had been a moment of individual brilliance; his second was a simple training ground move. Kljestan fired a corner at Aurelien Collin, running to the near post, and the big defender flicked the ball on. The entire Columbus back line had stepped up, leaving BWP all alone in the six-yard box. He reached out a foot and stabbed the ball into the net for his 23rd goal of the regular season. If it was offside, the Assistant Referee missed the call and the Red Bulls had a 3-0 lead.
Three minutes later, it was 3-1. Ten minutes after that, 3-2. The Red Bulls let Columbus back into the game but held on for three points. The final whistle was a relief, as the Crew had proven itself capable of breaching RBNY's suddenly-fragile defense. And it was a time for jubilation: the win all but clinched the Eastern Conference regular season title. Barring an improbable combination of results (RBNY loses; NYCFC wins; the results combine to see NYCFC overturn the 13 goals that separate its goal difference from that of RBNY), the New York Red Bulls will be in the 2017-18 CONCACAF Champions League. And they will be the East's top seed in the playoffs.
Sacha Kljestan continues to have a stellar season. His two assists in the game lifted his total for the regular season to 19. If he can get one more next week in Philadelphia, he'll have achieved something very rare in MLS: a 20-assist season.
"I'm pretty confident right now. It's been a good season for me personally. I've been able to make plays in the attacking third that have amounted to big chances and goal scoring opportunities for my teammates," said Kljestan, "So that's always important for me and in my play. I also hope to make it to Columbus for that World Cup Qualifier against Mexico."
Head Coach Jesse Marsch was finally able to open up a bit about this rollercoaster of a season: "I wasn't sure. I think I said a lot publicly, that I wasn't concerned, but I just started to wonder at what point, one and whatever, was going to start to hurt us at the end of the year. Looks like 1-6 was about the threshold," said Marsch.
"In some ways, I think that was the best thing that happened to us. It knocked any complacency out. It put us on our toes. It made us look carefully at things. It made us push hard everyday and I think that's what has gotten us here."
Subsequent results - FC Dallas beating the Sounders - ensured the Red Bulls' long shot at the Shield is over. There will be no regular season title this year. But an Eastern Conference title and a CCL slot is some consolation. And the team has made no secret of its priority this year: MLS Cup. After bouncing back from worst-in-the-league to best-in-the-East inside one season, RBNY has given itself the platform for the particular success it wants most of all. It won't be easy, but the team seems to have spent the entire season raising the level of difficulty for itself.
One more game of the regular season next week - a trip to Philadelphia that may be anticlimactic for RBNY - and then the team gets to see how well this topsy-turvy year has prepared it for the playoffs.