CARSON, Calif. – With a high-profile, high-priced roster, the New York Red Bulls had only one goal for the 2011 season: Win MLS Cup.
But after their 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy on Thursday night that knocked them out in the Western Conference Semifinals, 2011 will end the same way each of the club’s 16 MLS seasons has: without a major trophy.
“You’re always going to have disappointment,” Thierry Henry told reporters on Thursday night. “There’s only one team that’s going to win it. All of us are all going to be disappointed, I guess.”
This Red Bulls team was expressly designed to put all of the franchise’s previous futility to bed. With Henry and Rafa Márquez the biggest stars on the team full of big-name players, the hope was that this “superclub” would display some super football and lift the title come Nov. 20.
And for a time, it worked. The Red Bulls ran out to a 4-1-3 record to open the season, led by Henry’s three goals and three assists. But then a slew of injuries, underwhelming performances and adversity put a wrench in their plans.
The acquisition of Dwayne De Rosario didn’t pan out. Márquez was shuffled between the back line and the midfield in an effort to maximize his effectiveness. Midsummer call-ups stole as many as eight players from Hans Backe’s roster.
In the process, New York rattled off a series of draws between May and July – nine in 16 matches – that saw valuable points escape them. Only the futility of their fellow Eastern Conference foes kept them, almost inexplicably, atop the East standings as recently as early July.
“It’s been a tricky season for us, it’s been a very, very tricky season,” Backe told reporters on Thursday. “We have gone through a lot of problems during the year and missing a lot of players to international games.”
That vast underachievement nearly saw the Red Bulls careen out of the playoff picture entirely until some late-season performances – and a combination of lucky results elsewhere – saw them qualify for the dance as the 10th and final seed.
Still, they showed signs of life in the postseason, especially in a heroic 2-0 victory at FC Dallas in the wild card round, and a valiant recovery in the first leg of their series with the Galaxy. When they stunned LA early with a fourth-minute goal from Luke Rodgers in the second leg, it almost looked like New York had figured out how to be that fearsome team they were billed as back in March.
But in the end, the Galaxy’s quality showed through. Backe even praised his side’s vanquishers as a high-profile team that had figured out how to integrate all of its parts – almost suggesting his team had not yet. LA advanced, and the Red Bulls went home. And they’ll have another four months to figure out what went wrong.
“I thought we really worked hard as a team and it’s just disappointing,” said a visibly devastated Rodgers after Thursday's loss, with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head as if he just wanted to hide. “It’s hard to swallow.”