HARRISON, N.J.— An inch. Maybe two. That was how close the New York Red Bulls came to pushing the Eastern Conference Finals into extra time.
It never really seemed that close, however.
The Red Bulls were left at the doorstep of the MLS Cup Final for the second straight year, only this time they were left to watch their opponent lift a trophy in their home stadium. Jesse Marsch’s side was beaten, 2-1, on aggregate after getting blanked in the opening leg of the series last week, but the Red Bulls didn’t manage to make things interesting until stoppage time of the second leg.
Anatole Abang scored in the 93rd minute on Sunday, and his goal opened the door for a see-it-to-believe-it header from Bradley Wright-Phillips seconds later that incredibly hit the bottom of the right post before being cleared out shortly before the final whistle blew.
“It’s painfully unbelievable how that game ends,” said Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch.
While the series ultimately came down to the slimmest of margins, the Red Bulls were admittedly second best for much of it. Their attack was virtually nonexistent throughout the series, failing to create the type and amount of quality opportunities that had become the norm during their regular-season run to a Supporters’ Shield.
Defensively, the Red Bulls were not as bad over the course of the 180 minutes. That said, they were far from their best. The back line held Kei Kamara, Ethan Finlay, and Co. scoreless in the decisive fixture, but a major reason for that was the handful of strong saves that MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Luis Robles came up with.
Throw in the fact that the Red Bulls defense was caught napping twice, early and late, in the first leg and an argument can be made that their defense and attack were equally to blame for losing the series to Columbus.
“I just thought we were, for most of the series, outplayed, outworked, out-coached,” said Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty. “I thought Columbus deserved to advance. On the attacking end, we just weren’t good enough. We didn’t create many chances, weren’t sharp with the ball in the final third. Columbus, they gave up a lot of goals this year, and, defensively, they looked fragile going into the playoffs, but they defended very well.
“You have to give them a lot of credit. We had no ideas in the final third. It’s tough to take right now, but I thought Columbus deserved it.”
Boasting a healthy 2-0 lead going into the match at Red Bull Arena, the Crew took a more conservative approach, clogged the center of the field, and dangerously hit on the counter. The Red Bulls’ midfield triangle of McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, and Felipe struggled to make an impact as a result, but so too did wingers Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella.
Just as in the first leg, both Sam and Grella were held largely in check by Waylon Francis and Harrison Afful. The Red Bull duo’s inability to cause problems for the Crew’s fullbacks ultimately led to Marsch putting Sam on the left flank and Grella on the right in the second half to try and see if those different match-ups worked out more in his side’s favor.
The tactical move was more successful, but still not enough to truly trouble the Crew. Not until stoppage time, anyway.
“Columbus really tried to change and disturb the way that we try to do things and they accomplished it in a lot of ways,” said Marsch.