The New York Red Bulls were well beaten by Montreal Impact in the end. At the start of this Eastern Conference semifinal second leg, RBNY needed to score at least two goals to win the series. After the 51st minute, when Ignacio Piatti scored for L'Impact, RBNY needed to find three goals in 39 minutes. When Bradley Wright-Phillips finally found the net in the 77th, the Red Bulls needed two in 13 minutes. And when Piatti scored in the 85th, the home team needed three in five minutes.
RBNY never stopped chasing this game. But an increasingly desperate situation never provoked the number of goals required. L'Impact won the match, 2-1, and the series 3-1 and advances to the 2016 Eastern Conference final. Montreal has now beaten the hottest team in the East coming into the post-season (D.C. United) and the best over the course of the season (RBNY).
It will (almost certainly - TFC had a five-goal aggregate lead over NYCFC in the other Eastern Conference semifinal when this piece was published) have to beat the team with the league's best player - Sebastian Giovinco - to make the MLS Cup final, but Montreal seems to enjoy the experience of a high-stakes games in which it is very much the underdog.
Good luck to L'Impact for the remainder of the playoffs. Better luck to RBNY next season. Not for the first time, the Red Bulls exit a year in MLS with a few questions to answer in the off-season.
Before then, however, this is time for three thoughts on RBNY's last game of 2016.
1. The price of having no Plan B
It wasn't for want of trying, but the Red Bulls started the season realizing they needed a Plan B for the offense. Six losses in the first seven league games - and scoring in only two of those - proved that point and the team did try to fix the issue.
But it was never adequately addressed.
Until Bradley Wright-Phillips scored in the 77th minute of this game, the last Red Bull to have scored in the MLS post-season was Anatole Abang - who scored RBNY's only goal of the 2015 Eastern Conference final series against Columbus Crew. He is in Denmark now.
The team's second-highest scorer of 2015, Lloyd Sam, ended his 2016 with D.C. United. Sam scored 12 goals in all competitions last year. His replacements this season - Alex Muyl, Daniel Royer, and Omer Damari - combined for five between them. And Damari watched this game from the stands, serving a suspension for his red card in the first leg; Royer subbed in for Muyl in the 53rd minute: an apt summary for his time at RBNY to date, which has seen his time on the field restricted by injury.
Most tellingly, however, one moment in this match illustrated the plight of Gonzalo Veron. Acquired in 2015 and groomed in the 2016 preseason to be the team's attacking dynamo, things just haven't worked out for Veron. His big year was stalled by untimely injury, and by the time he got fit again, the team had already reverted to last season's Plan A - and that didn't really leave room for Veron.
He started this game because Jesse Marsch didn't have a lot of options: it would seem neither Mike Grella nor Royer was fit to start. Veron played his part, and won a penalty in the first half - but Sacha Kljestan put his kick a little too close to Evan Bush (who guessed right and let his reflexes do the rest).
And when Veron forced a turnover in his own half and then showed up in the Montreal box ready to collect the sort of line-breaking passes Kljestan has been making for two years now...
Kljestan's effort sails wide pic.twitter.com/Pz1m95gPio— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 6, 2016
...another opportunity missed.
Plan A - Kljestan and BWP - got the Red Bulls' season back on track. It was and is a good plan. But it doesn't work every time. And the various attempts to engineer a Plan B just haven't worked all year. It was optimistic to expect them to start working in this game.
2. Credit Montreal
The Red Bulls didn't play this match alone. Montreal Impact had a plan: let RBNY have the ball, stifle the inevitable attacks, and take opportunities on the counter. It worked. L'Impact played very well, with standout performances from Evan Bush (the game likely changes significantly if Kljestan's penalty isn't saved), Laurent Ciman (who made some very big stops), and two-goal-scorer Ignacio Piatti.
Ciman has been cleaning up well for the Impact. pic.twitter.com/SCMZqy0FmB— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 6, 2016
The strategy gave up a lot of chances. RBNY had ample opportunity to tilt the game its way.
Very close from BWP. pic.twitter.com/sHPo9F0je1— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 6, 2016
RBNY can't buy a goal right now. pic.twitter.com/n0mT8dS5wg— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 6, 2016
But with high risk often comes high reward. And, as in the first leg of this series, Montreal profited from an excellent strike that validated the game-plan and gave strength to those charged with its execution.
What a strike from Piatti. 1-0 Montreal. 2-0 aggregate, and an away goal. pic.twitter.com/VAvyuUPrnR— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 6, 2016
You play your game better than your opponent plays their own, you win: that isn't luck, it's the natural order of sports, and most contests are settled that way.
Montreal deserved the win in both legs and the series, because Montreal did exactly what it had planned to do and RBNY did not.
3. There will be a next year
Red Bulls fans have been here before. Indeed, Red Bulls fans have never known any different: RBNY did not win MLS Cup this year, just as it has not won MLS Cup in any year of its existence, under any of the names the team has chosen for itself since 1996.
The 2017 season might be different; or it might not. This year, the Red Bulls did enough to break out of the slump that started their season, but not enough to prevent one of the factors in the slump - over-reliance on two key attacking players - from ultimately tripping up the team in the playoffs.
Next year, whatever the outcome of the season, there will doubtless be a different story. Now we just have to wait to see what it will be.