COLUMBUS, Ohio – During a regular season that began with an expletive-laced town hall meeting and ended with a Supporters’ Shield celebration, the New York Red Bulls took special pleasure in proving people, among them their own fans, wrong.
They’ll have to do it again, against long odds following a 2-0 defeat against Columbus Crew SC in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship, to have any chance of ending the season as MLS Cup champions.
Down 1-0 after a playoff-record nine seconds and then 2-0 after tired legs and lackadaisical defending allowed Kei Kamara to do what he does best in the six-yard box, the Red Bulls balanced conflicting emotions – frustration and hope – following Sunday’s setback.
The frustration stemmed primarily from a goal that beat many fans at MAPFRE Stadium to their seats, as Kamara flicked on a long ball from the opening kickoff that Justin Meram eventually slammed home to send the sellout crowd of 21,617 into delirious celebrations.
“Its embarrassing defending, school-yard stuff,” Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said. “… They [go direct to Kamara] five or 10 seconds into the game, and for some reason we’re surprised and we don’t defend it properly. You spot a good team like Columbus a goal, you’re always fighting and clawing to get back into it.”
“You just wonder how something like that can happen in a big game like this,” head coach Jesse Marsch said.
Left back Kemar Lawrence, 23, and Matt Miazga, 20, appeared caught off guard by the direct play. Lawrence failed to get goal-side of Ethan Finlay, and Miazga was late covering once the winger found himself in on goal.
The end result? An early 1-0 deficit that shaped the rest of the game as well as the two-leg, aggregate-goal series.
“Before the series started I said we were maybe a little bit naïve and that was a good thing. It turned out to be a bad thing,” McCarty said. “We showed our inexperience. We showed our youth. Very nervy start. Obviously the goal rattled us, and you could see that it gave [Columbus] confidence.”
It also gave Crew SC license to sit back a bit in a bid to limit the costly turnovers that saw New York win 2-1 at Red Bull Arena in October.
Given an advantage to protect, Columbus flipped the script on the visitors, whose high-pressure style sent them to MLS’ best regular-season record. Instead, it was Crew SC harrying the Red Bulls into turnovers and preventing effective service into 2014 MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips.
Crew SC, one of the league’s best possession teams, allowed New York to possess the ball far more than expected, but their defense, even without suspended central defender Gaston Sauro, never broke despite the Red Bulls’ best efforts.
“It's a little bit frustrating because we had a lot of the game,” Marsch said. “Sometimes when you score early like Columbus does, you wind up taking a little bit more of a defensive posture. But I thought that a lot of the things we did, on the day, we were able to put the game on our terms. We weren't dangerous enough.”
That will have to change next Sunday in the return leg (7:30 pm ET, FS1 and FOX Deportes in USA; TSN Go in Canada) with New York in need of at least two goals to have a chance of advancing to MLS Cup.
Without an away goal to break a potential deadlock, the Red Bulls will have to win 2-0 to force extra time or penalties, 3-0 to win outright in regulation or they'll need to score at least four goals should they allow Crew SC to nab an away goal.
“The crazy thing is if we don’t concede that goal and we only lose this game 1-0, we’re pretty confident going back to Red Bull Arena that it’s a result that we can live with,” McCarty said. “We put ourselves in a hole. We’ve dealt with tough circumstances all year, and I think we’ll be able to regroup. We’ll give it everything we have. We’re not going to give up.
“Columbus celebrated like they won MLS Cup tonight. They certainly should be proud of the result. It’s a great result for them, credit to them. We’re going to try to flip it back around and give it a go and flip the series back in our favor at Red Bull Arena.”
On Thursday, before they knew they’d have a mountain to climb in the second leg, New York announced the second-leg match was sold out. Though disappointed to head back to the “friendly confines” with a deficit, goalkeeper Luis Robles said the Red Bulls’ mission won’t change.
“We understand what’s in front of us,” Robles said. “We’re going to throw everything at them – the kitchen sink – while knowing we can’t concede.
“They won the first half,” he added. “They should absolutely expect us to bring it in the second half.”