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Funny games: the psychological horror of the MLS playoffs

How an abstract horror film might offer a healthier perspective on the idea of success for the New York Red Bulls

Special Screening Of “Funny Games” At MoMA
(L-R) Actor Brady Corbert, director Michael Haneke, and actor Michael Pitt attend a screening of Funny Games in 2008
Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images

The key thing that imperceptive observers misunderstand about the New York Red Bulls is that the club is not defined by sweeping the floor of the standings. Outside the two historical aberrations of 1999 and 2009, New York is a consistently successful team, one of the best in Major League Soccer. What should partially define the club in the mind of both fan and journalist is the disappointment of falling short in the playoffs every year regardless of heavily favored or underdog status.

The 2020 season was an underwhelming exercise in drudgery. Following the offseason release of several foundational veterans, the club slogged through a season derailed by a pandemic, fired an ill-fitting manager, and managed to drift into an engorged playoff field on the wings of an interim appointment. Heading into Eastern Conference quarter-final match against Columbus Crew, few were expecting a win from the visitors under the leadership of a manager who had only recently arrived in the country.

Ignoring a history of postseason failures, the current Red Bulls are not a team built for playoff success. The air of resigned frustration and looking ahead to next season was palpable among the fan base and media even before the ball had been kicked. Compounding matters, Columbus’ tactics and roster present a bigger challenge for the high press than any other club in the league, as evidenced by the match in which they feasted on counter-attacks and forced their opponents into the unfamiliar state of possession and building out of the back.

As soon as the Crew scored the third goal, the match was over. Turn the page, head into the winter, and wait for next season. The new sporting director and manager are here and ready to rebuild the squad in their image.

And yet, there was that moment…

SOCCER: JUL 16 MLS - Columbus Crew SC v New York Red Bulls Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Let’s talk about the psychological thriller and social commentary Funny Games. Originally an Austrian production released in 1997, writer-director Michael Haneke remade his film for American audiences in 2007, this time starring big names such as Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt. It’s mature viewing featuring content of an intense and violent nature.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Two men show up at a house, force their way in, and spend the ensuing hours torturing the family with a variety of sadistic games. Death appears inevitable for the homeowners, punished by these strangers who appeared unannounced at their door.

Except there’s a moment of hope and this is where the story traditionally turns around, building to a triumphant crescendo. Naomi Watts’ character, Ann, happens across a loaded shotgun and blasts one of the intruders in the chest. The other trespasser, Paul, played by the brilliant Michael Pitt, grabs the weapon from her and pulls the family’s television remote control out of the couch cushions. He presses the rewind button, returning the plot to a previous moment before his partner was killed, and grabs the shotgun before she can make a move for it.

It’s absurd and brilliant and a million other superlatives I’m not intelligent enough to park in my lexicon. There is no salvation for these homeowners. Eventually, they are killed by the mysterious strangers, in a disturbingly perfunctory manner befitting of the film. The brief moment of hope was snuffed out by the universe breaking the fourth wall and snatching back control without any explanation.

There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Neither the motives of the antagonists in Funny Games nor their incredible powers in the film’s universe are ever explained. The plot ends with the two characters knocking on the door of the neighbor’s house, ready to start the cycle anew, in complete control of the universe.

There’s no point to the MLS Cup Playoffs. It’s all random, rewarding teams regardless of regular season performance. The Red Bulls head into the year-end knockout competition with the best of intentions but can’t manage to escape victoriously. Sometimes it seems like the other teams are able to break the fourth-wall to prevent proceedings from moving in a better direction.

But, admit it. Something stirred when Brian White unexpectedly scored in the 90th minute, bringing the score to 3-2. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, a spot in the next round of the playoffs on the horizon. If the Red Bulls could just take the other one out by scoring the tying goal, maybe there would be an end to this extended and inexplicable 25 years of torture.

Then someone grabbed the remote and returned the world back to its depressing and expected reality of playoff exits. Maybe it will be different next year. I think I hear someone at the door.