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Three Thoughts: New York Red Bulls trample Columbus Crew in second leg of 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal

RBNY is still alive in the 2018 MLS playoffs thanks to an emphatic win at Red Bull Arena over Columbus Crew.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls are in the 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Final thanks to a 3-0 win over Columbus Crew. It was an important victory for many reasons, but foremost among those is that it means the best team in MLS history didn’t get tripped up by the very first hurdle it faced in the post-season.

RBNY moves on to face the team most assumed would finish the 2018 regular season with the highest points total in MLS history, Atlanta United. Suggestions RBNY “stole” the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS single-season points record from Atlanta are easy to dismiss, but what the Red Bulls definitely did steal was ATL’s thunder. The team that stole RBNY’s old MetroStars kit will be looking to grab that thunder back.

Until then, however, there is an international break to get through. The 2018 MLS Playoffs resume on November 25. Here are three thoughts on the 3-0 win that means RBNY will still be playing soccer after Thanksgiving this year:

The first goal belonged to Aaron Long

Doesn’t really matter who got the credit for it in the end, but in the heat of the moment the Red Bulls certainly believed Aaron Long had scored the opening goal.

And it’s hard to find an angle that conclusively explains why the 17th-minute goal was awarded to Alex Muyl.

Did Muyl touch the ball last? Sure. Had he been a Columbus player, would the play have been deemed an own-goal? Not so sure.

If there’s an angle out there that clearly shows Alex Muyl’s decisive touch on what looks a lot like an already goal-bound shot - please do bring it forward.

#77 is back

This was Danny Royer’s game. Whoever scored RBNY’s opening goal, it was Royer’s far-post header across the six-yard box that created the opportunity.

And then he added the Red Bulls’ second himself.

Even at 2-0 down, Columbus still needed just one goal to win the series (on away goals). Royer gave his side the margin for error it needed for peace of mind.

The Red Bulls’ #77 had missed most of October with injury. In his absence, Derrick Etienne had staked a claim to a starting place, most significantly scoring the goal that clinched RBNY’s record-breaking regular-season points total and third Supporters’ Shield since 2013. Against Columbus in the first leg of this series, Royer got his first start since the end of September and looked more rusty than rejuvenated. Chris Armas would have been excused for leaving Royer out of RBNY’s starting lineup for this game.

There is no question about whether Royer should start RBNY’s next game. He’s back to his match-winning best.

They say the Red Bulls can’t play possession soccer

It is true that the principles of RalfBall are more concerned with controlling space than possession. RBNY plays a style of soccer that doesn’t really care whose feet touch the ball most, so long as the ball reliably ends up in the net the Red Bulls want it to go into.

And RBNY fans have got used to watching opponents come to Red Bull Arena with a plan to counter all the work the Red Bulls want to do without the ball: give the home team the ball and see what happens. It’s a risky tactic that doesn’t always, or even often, work: RBNY consistently wins a lot more games at home than it loses.

But it is a tactic that has worked well enough for teams visiting Red Bull Arena in the playoffs with a lead to defend. As demonstrated by Columbus back in 2015 and successfully imitated by Montreal in 2016: on both occasions, RalfBalling RBNY lost the first leg on the road, and was successfully stifled at home by a visitor willing to gamble that giving the ball to the Red Bulls would prove flummoxing to the all-action gegenpressers.

The lesson appeared to be that while the RBNY could rely on its trusted RalfBall to win more games than it would lose over the course of a 34-game season, that didn’t mean the team could rely on winning every game it played. Particularly in situations where its opponent could win by losing, like the second leg of a playoff series decided by aggregate goals scored with away goals as the first tiebreaker. Against Columbus in 2015, the Red Bulls won the home leg of the Eastern Conference Final, 1-0, which wasn’t enough to overturn the 2-0 deficit they had incurred in the first leg. Against Montreal in 2016, RBNY lost 1-0 on the road, and were bested 2-1 at home by a team willing to take the risk of letting the home side have most of the ball (the Red Bulls had 65% possession and launched 17 shots).

It’s a tactic that will doubtless be used against RBNY again, especially in the sort of situations generated by the MLS playoffs. The Red Bulls can be expected to continue to rely on their preferred solution to the problem: being better at what they do than whatever it is their opponents cook up to stop them. But it’s nice to think that the next time an opponent plans on giving the Red Bulls the ball in order to watch RalfBallers choke on their own possession, there will be some hesitation because giving RBNY the ball isn’t nearly as effective a tactic as it was once believed to be.

For that to be true, the Red Bulls need some highlight-reel moments of themselves inflicting maximum damage on an opponent not with relentless pressing but with relentless and effective passing and movement. And in this game, RBNY’s second goal was one of those moments.

RBNY’s possession for that goal started in its own half and the ball was passed around until it landed in the back of the net.

This game was played pretty much the way the Red Bulls like to play: they completed most of their passes (291 out of 387) in the attacking half of the field, and completed most of those passes (172 out of 291) in the final third - and Columbus had more than 50% of overall possession because for RBNY having the ball isn’t an end in itself.

The Red Bulls can and should congratulate themselves on another successful day’s gegenpressing. A high-intensity of the press was in full effect from kickoff and helped RBNY establish an early hold on the game. But that second goal was a reminder that the 2018 Red Bulls are not one-dimensional. Yes, they want to win by forcing turnovers in dangerous positions, but if an opponent wants to give them the ball and ask them to create opportunities with passing instead of pressing - these Red Bulls can do that too.