The New York Red Bulls head back to Red Bull Arena nursing a 1-0 loss in the opening leg of their 2018 MLS Eastern Conference Semifinals series against Columbus Crew. The loss - RBNY’s first since a 3-0 drubbing in Montreal on September 1 - was disappointing, but certainly not fatal to the team’s chances of advancing. The task ahead is simple and well within RBNY’s comfort zone: win at Red Bull Arena. It will need to be the right sort of win - one that doesn’t allow Columbus to sneak by on away goals - but that is a detail the Red Bulls can worry about if and when the Crew manages to score in the second leg.
Post-match, head coach Chris Armas was quick to lay out what will doubtless be his side’s mantra for the forthcoming week of training: “90 minutes to get the job done at home”.
Until November 11, when RBNY will have its shot at erasing the memory of this lackluster loss in Columbus, the might-have-beens of the first leg will be picked over in earnest. Here are three thoughts to throw on the coulda-woulda-shoulda pile:
A team’s luck will run out some time
The Red Bulls enjoyed a charmed run to the Supporters’ Shield. That is not to say the team was lucky to win the Shield - the highest single-season points total in MLS history is not accumulated by luck - but just to point out that the thrilling run to a regular-season title was essentially a solid month of things mostly going RBNY’s way. For the last five league games of 2018, the match-winning moments belonged to the Red Bulls.
Yes, good teams make their own luck. No, five wins in a row is not a fluke, any more than 71 points from 34 games is a fluke. And yes, the Red Bulls won their games and their third Shield since 2013 playing the way they not only planned to play, but the way they have spent the last four seasons steadily refining and improving: they called their shot.
But along the way, there was of course some good fortune - perhaps most significantly in the absence of catastrophe: no game-changing calls against the Red Bulls; no stand-on-their-head performances from an opposing ‘keeper; no unstoppable shot to tilt a close game the way of the other team. Not everything went RBNY’s way in October, but it felt like that because at the end of every 90 minutes, whatever else might have happened, RBNY won. Even the thing completely out of the Red Bulls’ control - Toronto waking from its season-long slumber to assert something of its 2017 self against Atlanta - worked out in their favor.
For most of this season, and for the whole of the last month, the Red Bulls could do no wrong. The team was sort of due a game in which it could nothing right - and this was that sort of game.
Tim Parker had Zack Steffen beaten in the first half, but his header clanged off the post and the rebound eluded the red shirts clustered in and around the six-yard box.
And if Daniel Royer had just half-a-yard more pace, or the ball bounced a little closer to him - maybe Steffen’s heroic charge into no-man’s land would not have worked out quite so well for the Crew.
Or if Bradley Wright-Phillips had made more than the slightest contact (did he touch the ball at all?) at the death, perhaps he’d have made Steffen’s outstretched hand irrelevant.
This wasn’t RBNY’s best game. But it wasn’t the Crew’s finest work either. For much of the match, it appeared the Columbus players were as snake-bit as the Red Bulls - with the exception of Steffen, who was as responsible for his team’s win as the goal-scorer. But Luis Robles had a perfectly good night too, he just didn’t have a post bail him out when he needed it.
Columbus got the win and the right to be applauded for getting the better of RBNY on the day. But the Red Bulls didn’t forget how to play, nor were they outmatched. They just had an off day after a succession of very good ones, and unfortunately it happened on the opening day of their 2018 playoff campaign.
Federico Higuain is very good at soccer
It is neither fair nor accurate to cast the loss entirely in terms of what RBNY did or did not do right. There were two teams on the field, and the Crew earned the win. Earned it at the back, where Steffen put out all the fires his back line could not. And earned it up front, through the infuriatingly simple tactic of putting a very good soccer player in position to play very good soccer.
It’s no secret that Federico Higuain is a very good player. Nor is it a secret that he is 34 years old. As such, it was both surprising and unsurprising that he wasn’t in the Crew’s starting lineup: he’d played 120 minutes of playoff soccer just three days earlier.
Once it was apparent Higuain wouldn’t be starting, the question was when he’d be introduced to the match and whether he’d get the opportunity to make a difference. He joined the game at the start of the second half, his influence was near immediate, and he made the play that gave his side the 61st-minute lead it never surrendered.
Talk about defensive positioning or space between the lines or tracking runners off the ball as much as you like. But don’t deny the impact of a special player doing a special thing to wrong-foot an entire back line - it can’t be genius only when RBNY players do it.
Two teams having not the greatest of games needed a moment of quality to separate them. Higuain provided that moment; Higuain plays for the team in yellow; the team in yellow won.
The best player on the field isn’t always on the winning side, but he was on this occasion.
It’s only just begun
A lot will be written and said about this game between now and the second leg on November 11. Much of it, understandably, will dwell on the fact that plucky, middling Columbus stood up to MLS’ best-ever team and won. Full credit to the Crew for the achievement. Just as RBNY deserved full credit when it came off a middling regular-season and beat MLS’ best-ever team, 1-0 in a playoff semifinal game - and that happened only last year.
The circumstances were a little different: it was the second leg, on the road in Toronto, that RBNY won. But it was the same category of achievement: “best-ever” in MLS does not mean invincible (not yet; give the league time to generate a side that can go unbeaten for a full season); best-ever teams can and will lose, even in the playoffs (especially in the playoffs, perhaps).
As RBNY will remember very clearly, however, last year’s best-ever team might have lost one leg of its Eastern Conference semifinal, but it won the series.
The Red Bulls weren’t far away from getting at least a point out of their opening game of the 2018 playoffs. To extend their run in the tournament, they need to do what was done to them last year: make sure the upstart challenger is sent home with nothing beyond an isolated result to celebrate.
It’s a tired phrase that gets trotted out after the opening leg of every two-game series, but it is only half-time in this match-up. And the Crew just demonstrated how decisively a game can be tilted by a team that saves its best for the second half. RBNY and its fans can hope their side has saved its best for the second leg.