The New York Red Bulls have got themselves into a spot of bother in the 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Final against Atlanta United. Losing the first leg 3-0 in Atlanta means RBNY will need to win the second leg by three goals just to get to a penalty shootout - or win by four if Atlanta chips in with an away goal.
The 2018 RBNY squad is MLS’ Best Team Ever, so a three-goal win at home is not a wild idea: the team got one in the last round of these playoffs, for example. But Atlanta United is MLS’ Best Second-Best Team Ever, and its head coach is arguably the most experienced and respected manager in the league: Tata Martino, reigning MLS Coach of the Year and presumed to be polishing his legacy at Atlanta before heading off to take charge of the Mexico men’s national team.
Atlanta United is in form, has veteran leadership on the field and the sideline, and just needs to keep its head for 90 minutes and not lose by three goals. For the Red Bulls to pull off one of the greatest (shouldn’t be much of a stretch to call it the greatest) comebacks in MLS post-season history, they will need to overcome arguably the strongest second-favorite in MLS Cup history: the team just about everyone who doesn’t work for RBNY expected to win this year’s Supporters’ Shield with an all-time MLS points record. Indeed, the Red Bulls arguably already pulled off a monumental upset in the regular season by chasing down Atlanta and claiming the Shield and points record widely presumed to be property of the Five Stripes.
It will not be easy to turn over a very capable Atlanta side that has already had its resolve hardened by its Decision Day disaster in Toronto. How not easy? Fivethirtyeight.com reckons RBNY has about a 6% chance of advancing to the 2018 MLS Cup Final. Tutul Rahman notes that’s about the same chance the US Men’s National Team had of not making it to the 2018 World Cup heading into the last round of CONCACAF qualifying last year.
The not-insignificant group of RBNY fans who also back USMNT would doubtless like to see long odds work out in their favor this time around.
But that particular illustration of the 6% chance also highlights how very improbable RBNY’s desired outcome is: USMNT didn’t just need to lose to Trinidad and Tobago in the last round of the CONCACAF Hexagonal, Honduras needed to beat Mexico and Panama needed to beat Costa Rica - and until the 88th minute of the game in Panama City, when Roman Torres put Los Canaleros ahead, it seemed only two of those three unexpected things were even likely to happen.
Still, there’s a chance. Once A Metro has no reason to doubt fivethirtyeight.com and no statistics training with which to mount any challenge to the site’s calculations, but it feels like a good team winning 3-0 or 4-0 at home against any opponent is a touch more probable than three upsets occurring in three different games on the same day in the same competition to drop USMNT out of World Cup contention. Ignorance is bliss, so OaM will continue to avoid all opportunity for an education in statistics in order to preserve what optimism remains for RBNY’s 2018 season.
Further cause for optimism, perhaps, can be found in review of great sporting comebacks. Sports delivers all sorts of improbable results on a regular basis, which is part of the continued appeal of sports and why any fans at all will turn up to watch RBNY even when its prospects look pretty bleak.
Indeed, in some ways, it is the bleakness of those prospects that make RBNY’s forthcoming game an attractive proposition. Sure, you’re probably going to see another valiant Red Bull flameout in the playoffs, but you might see the most epic comeback in MLS history. Would you want to be the one who missed that because you couldn’t stomach the likelihood of a repeat of the same post-season story RBNY tells every year? If you can, grab a ticket and an excuse for missing work on Friday because the most memorable nights are those that were looking forgettable until a touch of magic intervened.
The comebacks that most readily spring to mind in discussion of the sort of performance RBNY needs to conjure resolve its seemingly intractable problem are events like Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain in the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League, which secured a 6-5 win on aggregate for the Spanish club. Or Liverpool’s astonishing second-half recovery against AC Milan, rebounding from 3-0 down to force a tie and win the 2004-05 edition of UCL on penalties. Or, if it’s Atlanta sports you want to focus on, the Atlanta Falcons’ remarkable capitulation to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
So we’ll skip all of those examples on the grounds they’re well covered elsewhere. Mostly by RBNY’s Ben Mines.
Here are four other examples RBNY might use to inspire the greatest comeback in MLS history:
Stand and Deliver: Carlos Brathwaite, West Indies T20 Team; 2016 World T20 Final
Part of RBNY’s challenge on November 29 is that its opponent knows exactly what is coming. Atlanta United is not going to be surprised by the Red Bulls’ urgent desire to score a lot of goals. And the Five Stripes need score no goals of their own - just adequately defend the lead they established in the first leg. RBNY is effectively calling its shot, and Atlanta can set-up in whatever way it feels will be effective to prevent the shot from being made. And to add to the degree of difficulty, RBNY has to hit at least three shots, not one.
If the Red Bulls want to channel the spirit of a sportsman who looked his opponent in the eye, revealed his unlikely ambition and then followed through on it: look no further than West Indies cricketer Carlos Brathwaite.
OaM is aware that its readers aren’t looking to this website for cricket commentary. We’ll spare you an explanation of the game - that is easy enough to find in other places. We’ll spare you a description of the ins and outs of the T20 format of cricket and the format of the World T20 tournament.
Suffice it to say, this was a World Cup Final. Played in the world’s most cricket-mad country, India. Close to 70,000 in the stands at Eden Gardens in Kolkata; tens of millions more watching on TV.
The final between England and the West Indies went down to the final “over” - the last six balls, or pitches if you will. All would be bowled by England’s Ben Stokes. West Indies had Carlos Brathwaite at bat, the last and least-reputed of their big hitters. They also needed to score 19 runs off these last six balls - a tall order, but it was something of a victory for the team to have got this deep into the game and still have a chance of winning. England had made quick work of the top West Indian batters and the World T20 Final had threatened to subside into one-sided anti-climax. West Indies had done well just to have reached the last over with a remote chance of winning.
In cricket, the most that can be scored off one ball - with a few unusual exceptions - is six runs. And those six runs can only be scored by hitting the ball clean out of the ground. If the ball is hit out of the field of play on the bounced or along the ground, that is four runs scored. So faced with 19 runs to score off six deliveries, the West Indies’ best option - pretty much only option - was to swing for the fences.
England knew that, of course. With fielders in the deep and an experienced bowler running in, England’s job was simply to bowl straight and true and wait for the desperate West Indies batters to miss and mis-hit.
As RBNY fans well know, since they watched their team do it in the first leg of the 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Final, a side that knows its opponent knows what it is most likely to do might decide to do something different. Not Carlos Brathwaite. He didn’t arrive at the biggest moment of his career to suddenly stop doing what he does best.
Stokes first ball was a little off-target and Brathwaite clouted it out of the ground: six runs; 13 required from five deliveries; history would record the West Indies went down swinging. The second ball was straighter, giving Brathwaite less room to swing but the big Barbadian found enough power in his wrists to flick the ball out of the ground again: six runs; 7 required from four deliveries. The game abruptly tilted West Indies way - maybe time to play a little safer? Nope. Stokes’ next ball was on target, but so was Brathwaite: six more; one run required from the next three balls and the game was suddenly West Indies’ to lose. Definitely time to slow down.
Nope again. The fourth ball followed the same trajectory as the rest: six and a T20 World Championship for the West Indies.
As commentator Ian Bishop said at the time: “CARLOS BRATHWAITE, CAR-LOS BRATHWAITE: REMEMBER THE NAME!”
Indeed. Remember the name, RBNY. Back yourself to be your best when your best is required. It’s why you’re in the big games in the first place.
Channel the memory of Istanbul: Leinster Rugby, 2011 Heineken Cup Final
Inspiration is often required to help lift a team out of a tight spot. How influential is the story of Liverpool’s second-half fightback from three goals down to a penalty shootout to the UEFA Champions League title in 2005? So influential it doesn’t just gee-up soccer teams.
In 2011, Leinster Rugby was in a very tight spot at half-time of its Heineken Cup Final against Northampton. The team had seemingly been blown out of contention for what is sort of European rugby’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League title.
When the team filed into the locker room at half-time, on the wrong side of a 22-6 scoreline with 40 minutes to play, Leinster’s Johnny Sexton admitted he had been under no illusions about his team’s prospects in the match:
It felt it was gone when they got that third try, that everything we had done to get out of the pool and get to the final was down the drain.
We were shellshocked and needed half-time. We regrouped. We had to believe...
To summon that belief, Sexton challenged his teammates to follow Liverpool’s example: “I watch a lot of sport and that Liverpool game just stuck in my mind for some reason.”
It was by all accounts a rousing call to arms. Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll told the BBC Sexton was instrumental in refocusing his teammates:
We had some choice words at half-time and Sexton was phenomenal in the dressing room, he was a man possessed. He said this game would be remembered if we came back and we will remember this for a long time.
What followed was one of the most emphatic comebacks in modern rugby history. Leinster overran Northampton from the start of the second half, taking a 23-22 lead within 15 minutes. The match finished 33-22 in Leinster’s favor; Sexton scored 28 of those points.
Remember Istanbul, RBNY - it’ll give you wings.
You’ve done it before, RBNY: New York Red Bulls, 2017 US Open Cup semi-final
Time for a soccer example. The Red Bulls need to score three goals in 90 minutes and concede none just to force the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final to extra time. That is a difficult scenario at the best of times, and more difficult for RBNY because its opponent is the strongest team it could conceivably face in MLS this year.
Still, the Red Bulls will at least be playing at home, and they at least have a full game to try to get all the goals they need. The current squad has some experience of the task at hand: scoring three without reply to survive in a knockout competition is a trick RBNY pulled off just last year.
FC Cincinnati in 2017 was by no means an equivalent opponent to Atlanta United in 2018. But throw in the fact that RBNY was playing in Cincinnati and fell into a two-goal hole after 62 minutes and maybe the degree of difficulty becomes a little more comparable.
The Red Bulls were still down 2-0 as the game ticked into its last 15 minutes, but Gonzalo Veron provided hope, pouncing on a loose ball in the box in the 75th minute. Three minutes later, Bradley Wright-Phillips nodded home the equalizer. And 11 minutes into extra time, BWP bagged the winner.
There is no shortage of players in the current squad who contributed directly to the 3-2 win in Cincinnati last year: BWP, Alex Muyl, Sean Davis, Kemar Lawrence, Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, and Michael Murillo were all starters that day; Derrick Etienne joined the game from the bench.
You’ve scored three without reply to win a knockout game before, RBNY. Do it again for the sake of old times and keeping the 2018 season alive.
It ain’t over til it’s over: Nicaragua, 2017 Gold Cup qualification, CFU-UNCAF playoff
In 2017, Haiti and Nicaragua contested a playoff for the last open spot at the 2017 Gold Cup. The home-and-away series did not start well for Nicaragua: the team was 3-0 down by half-time of the first leg in Haiti. A late goal in that game did give the Nicaraguans some hope, but they were still 3-1 down after 80 minutes of the second leg in Managua. Haiti was well set for a Gold Cup berth.
And then an 85th-minute penalty triggered a five-minute turnaround. Nicaragua’s Juan Barrera scored from the spot, then scored again and again. By the 90th minute, Nicaragua was 4-3 ahead on aggregate and heading to Gold Cup.
It ain’t over til it’s over, RBNY.
This comeback comes with a Red-Bull-relevant postscript. RBNY’s Derrick Etienne played the last 35 minutes of that game for Haiti - getting an all-too close view of his side’s capitulation. But 18 months later, Etienne was a starter for Les Grenadiers when they returned to Managua for 2019-20 CONCACAF Nations League (and 2019 Gold Cup) Qualifying. He played a starring role in Haiti’s 2-0 win.
Etienne knows a thing or two about avenging the memory of painful 3-0 losses. Hopefully, he can apply that experience to RBNY’s cause on November 29.