The New York Red Bulls' recent struggles with the burden of a two-goal lead have seen them drop 10 points over over five games spread over their last 10 league outings. The team was still able to get a point out of each of those matches, but it would be coasting along at the top of the Eastern Conference and Supporters' Shield race under different circumstances. Instead, RBNY is edging toward a playoff berth incrementally, maintaining a long unbeaten streak (15 games in all competitions; 12 games in MLS) without the dominant position in the standings one might expect of such an impressive run of invincibility.
But that milk is spilled. RBNY has four regular-season games left to pitch itself as high up the Eastern Conference standings as possible, to secure home advantage in the playoffs for as long as possible. First, however, it needs to formally secure a playoff berth. A win in its next game, against Montreal Impact at Red Bull Arena, is the simplest way to get post-season qualification confirmed.
L'Impact has been dropping points and falling down the Eastern Conference standings recently - and, indeed, all season. Montreal's 2016 league campaign has been stubbornly up-and-down, which is why the team is stoically camped out on the middle of the table in the East: it is the fifth-placed team of 10.
Few in MLS are fooled by Montreal's place in the standings. L'Impact has the tools to hurt any opponent in the league, it just has the tendency to hurt itself just as reliably. "I think we know that they are a team that can quickly hurt us on the counter, we have to make sure we do a good job of watching their forward players and when they are on the attack it makes them dangerous as well," said Alex Muyl, "With the state their team is in, we aren't thinking about that at all, we are making sure we clinch a playoff spot and finish the season undefeated."
For Luis Robles, RBNY's biggest issue is not any particular opponent but the team's own recurring frailty when faced with a lead to defend. "Looking at our recent form and some of the leads we have given up, we need to embrace what's in front of us and make plays," said Robles, "To make a step forward, this team should take ownership of its destiny. We shouldn't be surprised of being in the position that we are, we are a good team. We will score goals and we will have leads. When we're in those situations, instead of being so defensive, we have to embrace who we are. Do it for 90 minutes and know who we are."
The current unbeaten streak has lifted RBNY out of the hole it dug for itself at the start of the season, when six of the first seven league games were lost. It has been an under-rated recovery, and perhaps one the team itself has helped to keep out of the spotlight, since no club should be expected to enjoy talking about those times it wasn't playing well. "Why doesn't the team win more?" is, in some ways, a welcome criticism for a side that started the year struggling to address the question "When will this team win again?"
March is not so far in the past that head coach Jesse Marsch has forgotten the experience of watching his side fall flat on its face.
"When we were at 1-6, it was very difficult but I also knew I was looking at a good team and finding some ways to fill some holes and then be a little bit more on top of the details. When it was 1-3, 1-4, 1-5 - you're wondering a little bit when does one-and-X start to amount and really start to cost you," said Marsch, "When we got to 2-6, then the hope is you start to gain momentum and then you're only looking forward from there. But I truly felt by mid-summer we would be a good team.
We showed that and even now, through the late stages of the summer into the fall, we would get better. But now we have this situation we have to protect late leads. I don't like saying protect, we need to stay aggressive late in games and - whatever the score is - to not get away from who were are and doing it in a smart way. When we do, we will be a dangerous side coming into playoff time."
A few months ago, if you'd said RBNY's problem this season would be protecting a lead late in the game, you'd have been laughed at. Sometimes, you judge a team's progress by the nature of the criticism it receives. RBNY isn't satisfied with its recent form, but it can also take some confidence for the task ahead from the knowledge that it has confronted and subdued a bigger issue already this year.
The same focus that dragged the team out of its dreadful start must now be applied to ending the season with a flourish. And that begins with Montreal at Red Bull Arena on September 24.