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Red Bulls’ lackluster showing leaves them in hole in East Finals

photo by Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports
photo by Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports

The New York Red Bulls were second best in nearly every aspect. The scoreboard more than rightly reflected that.

A goal nine seconds into the match from the Columbus Crew was a sign of things to come for the New York Red Bulls on a frustrating and disappointing evening at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The Red Bulls suffered a 2-0 loss there on Sunday in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals, and at least just as bad as the result was the performance put forth by the Supporters’ Shield champions.

Not only did the Red Bulls get caught hitting the snooze button instead of being awake and alert immediately after kickoff, but they also looked almost as poor as they have this year. Passes in the midfield were off the mark, the attack was largely toothless, and the defense failed to react properly at the wrong times.

“Altogether on the night, we weren’t alert enough, we didn’t cover enough ground, we didn’t make it hard on them, we didn’t win enough loose balls, we didn’t do enough,” said Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch. “We let ourselves down.”

While the Red Bulls simply were not anywhere close to their usual best for much of the 90 minutes, the main talking point was the goal they conceded to Justin Meram a record nine seconds into the match. The Crew took the lead as people were still getting to their seats or flipping the game on, as the kickoff led to a back pass to Wil Trapp, who took advantage of the time and space allowed by accurately launching a long ball forward.

Having darted straight up the gut of the field, the athletic Kei Kamara beat Red Bulls centerback Ronald Zubar to the header and dropped it into the path of teammate Ethan Finlay. Finlay did just enough to find Meram, who struck clinically past goalkeeper Luis Robles to score the fastest goal in MLS Playoff history.

Elation for the Crew and their fans. A nightmare for the Red Bulls and theirs.

“It was embarrassing defending, schoolyard stuff,” said Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty. “The second time we played them here in the regular season when they beat us 2-1, they played direct and they played off Kamara and he just flicked it on and they had runners running off it. They do it five, 10 seconds into the game and for some reason we’re surprised and we don’t defend it properly.

“If you spot a good team like Columbus a goal going into the series, you are always fighting and clawing to get back into it.”

March’s men responded well in the immediate aftermath of that goal, with Sacha Kljestan having his equalizer denied only because of a stupendous block by Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark on one play. The Red Bulls were unable to capitalize on their momentum, and it did not take very long for the tide to shift back in the Crew’s favor.

Yes, the Crew lost the possession battle, but they also took the venom out of the Red Bulls’ attack. Bradley Wright-Phillips was held largely in check mostly because Gregg Berhalter’s side did a good job of negating wide players Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella, and that combined with the Red Bulls’ central midfield trio’s struggles was just too much for the visitors too overcome.

Being down a goal on aggregate after the first leg was not the worst thing in the world, but the Red Bulls conceded a second just five minutes before the final whistle. Crew substitute Cedrick Mabwati weaved through a handful of players, including McCarty, before hitting a close-range shot that Robles parried.

The Red Bulls, however, were undone by a lack of a reaction. Only Kamara was alert enough to pounce on the rebound, and he pushed it home with ease from a yard out. No one was even that close to challenge him. It was ball-watching at its finest. Or, worst.

“At that moment in the game, it looked like we were kind of tired,” said Robles. “We didn’t react too well to the situation, and we only have ourselves to blame. Sure, Cedrick made the play, he did pretty well, but there were several moments where we probably could have stopped him.”

Things might look pretty grim for the Red Bulls’ MLS Cup chances right now, but they are confident that they can bounce back when they return home to Red Bull Arena for the decisive leg this Sunday. The club took solace in that it was still in the first leg until late despite not playing to its best abilities, but knows it has to improve dramatically in order to keep the season alive.

“This series isn’t over,” said Marsch. “Credit to Columbus for getting a 2-0 lead on their home turf. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Now it’s up to us to go back to Red Bull Arena and push the game there.”

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