Despite first place spot, New York Red Bulls still struggling to put teams away at home

HARRISON, N.J. – Controlling games at home is no problem for the New York Red Bulls.

Putting them way, however, is a bit of a different story.

The Red Bulls became first MLS team to clinch a playoff spot on Saturday thanks to a dramatic late goal from Tim Cahill, but the euphoria following the 2-2 draw against the New England Revolution masked an issue New York need to correct before the postseason arrives.

Mike Petke’s side is as good as any team in MLS at home – at 10-2-4 they're tied for the most home wins this season with three other teams – and they typically dictate the tempo at Red Bull Arena. But where improvement is needed is in closing games out. Too many times this season have the Red Bulls allowed teams to linger, giving even overwhelmed opponents a chance to grab a result despite New York’s in-game dominance.

Saturday's draw was a perfect and painful example. The first-place Red Bulls scored in the first half through Fabian Espindola and were cruising to an easy victory, but New York never found that second goal despite continuously attacking, leaving the door open for a controversial penalty kick to be called late in the second half that changed the complexion of the match.

“We need to put teams away,” Petke said in his postgame press conference. “I think this year a lot of times we did put teams away. Tonight, give New England credit, they made it difficult for us to play a lot of the time and they threw caution to the wind and put pressure on us all over the field. At times, we weren’t able to adapt to it.”

The Revolution benefitted from a controversial referee decision, but the Red Bulls were quick to admit after the game that they allowed themselves to be put in such a situation by not killing off the game earlier with a second goal.

In fact, New England are not the first team to punish the Red Bulls for that this season. Lowly D.C. United nearly grabbed a draw at Red Bull Arena back in August, but Luis Robles came through with a clutch penalty kick save to prevent that from happening. In late July, the Red Bulls never finished off Real Salt Lake and that allowed the visitors to equalize and take a late lead before Dax McCarty came to the rescue with a stoppage-time winner.

The Red Bulls also coughed up a late one-goal lead in a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes back on March 10, setting the tone for what's been a sometimes nerve-wracking season at Red Bull Arena.

“We need to be able to shut it down,” Robles told MLSsoccer.com. “That’s something I know Mike will talk about in the next week, is we need to be able to shut it down at 1-0 because sometimes going in the playoffs it’s like that, so [the draw with New England] continues to show that we have the character and the quality.

“If we can do that and close games out, it’s pretty solid.”

There is no denying that this Red Bulls team has as much, if not more, resolve as any in recent memory. But in the playoffs, New York’s luck is likely to run out if they continue to lack that killer instinct and keep opposing teams in games.

That is why the Red Bulls are hoping that this tie with the Revolution serves as a much-needed lesson.

“It’s important that it happened now and hopefully not in the playoffs, because the playoffs are just one-off or two-off games that dictate your whole season,” Lloyd Sam told MLSsoccer.com. “We can’t keep doing that. We can’t keep doing that.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.