The New York Red Bulls have advanced out of the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs just once in their 13-year history and few observers gave them a chance to do that this year against the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo.
And yet, the Red Bulls, missing several starters because of suspension, injury and ineffectiveness, led 1-0 three minutes into the second half of the Western Conference Semifinal Series and carried that lead into the final five minutes of the game.
Yes, a one-goal lead after the opening leg is precarious, but it sure beats being level or down after 90 minutes. According to John Wolyniec, the Red Bulls went into a defensive shell too soon, they dropped numbers back and gave the Dynamo precious room to move and it resulted in the Dynamo’s equalizer in a 1-1 draw on Saturday afternoon at Giants Stadium.
“It was a bit early to start hitting long balls and I know myself I dropped in a bit and when you do that you give teams a lot of space to come forward,” Wolyniec said. “That type of team, if you give them too much field to play with, they’re going to put balls in the box and that’s what they did.”
Indeed, Wade Barrett served a ball into the box that was touched by Stuart Holden to Kei Kamara, who toe-poked the ball past Danny Cepero for the critical equalizer.
“The disappointment is there for us because we felt we should have won it,” Juan Pablo Angel said. “But it’s a 180 minute game. We already played the first half and we have the other half to play. Everything is there to play for.”
Angel gave the Red Bulls the lead three minutes into the second half, beating Eddie Robinson to Wolyniec’s quick cross from the left corner and heading it past Pat Onstad for his first career playoff goal.
Upset at the performance of several regular starters in a 5-2 regular-season ending loss at Chicago, Osorio changed his lineup and rolled the dice, starting relatively inexperienced players Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Luke Sassano in the center of the park. Osorio also went with a hunch and played veteran John Wolyniec up front with Juan Pablo Angel.
All three of Osorio’s midseason acquisitions – Venezuelans Jorge Rojas and Gabriel Cichero and Argentine defensive midfielder Juan Pietravallo – were not in Osorio’s starting XI.
“I thought last game, we were way too easy to play against,” Osorio said.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday. The Red Bulls fought for every loose ball and are unlucky to no come out of the game with more than a draw.
“I think we did just enough to have won the game against a very, very tough team,” Osorio said. “(I’m) very proud of the boys today. We competed and we limited them to a very few chances and at the end, I think there are more positives than negatives in this game.”
Despite the Red Bulls’ poor away form during the regular season – one win in 15 road games – New York players are confident about getting something out of the second leg provided they bring the same effort and play with the same passion next Sunday in Houston.
“If we bring the fight and we sharpen up a bit,” Wolyniec said, “I think we have a great chance.”