HARRISON, N.J. – The New York Red Bulls’ locker room was an emotional one.
A painful and rare silence filled the half-empty room and Kenny Cooper was staring at the ground while sitting in his locker, still in tears almost half an hour after the Red Bulls suffered a 1-0 loss to archrivals D.C. United in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Thursday night.
For the New York players, the defeat that eliminated them was not only crushing because it ended a season that was supposed to end with an MLS Cup, but also because the manner in which it came.
The Red Bulls were the dominant side against a D.C. United team content to absorb attacks and hit on the counterattack, but they were unable to find the back of the net. Cooper converted on a second-half penalty kick that could have been the difference in the series, but encroachment was called and his retake was saved.
Then, rookie Nick DeLeon scored an 88th-minute winner before celebrating with the D.C. United fans at Red Bull Arena, a scene that was gut-wrenching and heartbreaking for the Red Bulls players and their fans.
“I’m gobsmacked,” Tim Cahill told reporters after the game. “Football throws up difficult emotions and today there’s a lot of emotional players. It can only make some of us stronger.
“We have to just look back over the game. Obviously, we could’ve won the game, we know it. That’s probably why it hurts so much.”
Cooper was taking the loss exceptionally hard. The Red Bulls’ leading goalscorer surely dwelled and replayed in his head his second penalty kick attempt against United’s backup goalkeeper Joe Willis. Cahill even intervened when media approached Cooper, telling reporters, "He’s not talking," before fielding questions about the game and controversial play himself.
“I’ve missed penalties in the past, and I don’t even for one instant blame [him],” said Cahill. “He has 18 goals. Guy’s a freak.”
Goalkeeper Luis Robles, a good friend of Cooper’s off the field, also admitted it was difficult to see his teammate in tears.
“Unfortunately, that’s one of the hardest parts of the game,” said Robles. “To see a counterpart, to see a friend in a tough situation like that and just have it not work out for him. He’s a fantastic player and I know as a person his character is very strong and he’s going to bounce back from this.”
How the Red Bulls bounce back will be an interesting story to follow this coming offseason and throughout the 2013 campaign. As for now, the Red Bulls will have to just deal with the stinging emotions of seeing another season go down the drain in cruel fashion.
“Only one team is going to be happy at the end of the season,” said Thierry Henry. “We will be a team obviously that didn’t win. Only one team is going to be happy so the rest will be talking about us. It’s not good enough, we want to win.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at Franco8813@gmail.com.