The day after, and it doesn’t feel any better.
If you’re a fan of the LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders or New England Revolution, this week has not been kind. Your team teased you with glimpses of greatness, but couldn’t get it done, bowing out at the Conference Semifinal stage.
You’ve got months to ponder what could have been, what went wrong and why it didn’t end better.
The good news is, fans of all 19 MLS teams but one will ultimately share your pain one month from now.
The bad news is, there are just too many types of pain.
There’s the light pinch Revs fans are feeling. It smarts to fall in extra time in Kansas City after stealing a win in the first leg. But this season was such a quantum leap forward for their team, which hadn’t tasted postseason soccer in any fashion in half a decade.
Year 2 of the Jay Heaps regime was the culmination of the rebirth of a franchise infused with new energy, youth and optimism. The former defender has rebuilt the Revs not in his own image, but one better: exciting, quick-moving and with a stable of young attackers that is the envy of the league.
This year saw the breakout of teen phenom Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe hitting his stride in his sophomore season, Lee Nguyen threading the needle and Juan Agudelo – despite limited minutes – holding it all together in perhaps his finest hour.
Lost in the shuffle was one of the best defenses in MLS, their 38 goals allowed tied for the third-fewest in the league. Though it all, Heaps coached his former team to its best record since the last time the Revs went to MLS Cup all the way back in 2007.
There’s so much cause for optimism in 2014. Yes, Heaps will have to deal with the loss of Agudelo to Europe and may have to rebuild parts of the roster. But if we go by “the three-year rule” of team-building, he’s ahead of curve. And so are Revs fans.
There’s the return of the dull pain you haven’t felt in years. Galaxy fans knew it was coming some time. It just didn’t seem like it was coming so soon. Bruce Arena’s teams just don’t lose this early in the playoffs, and there was no reason to think it would happen in Utah after a 1-0 victory in the first leg.
But the failure to pad that lead in Carson after so many scoring chances caught up to the two-time champions. Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan went shockingly silent Thursday night, effectively neutralized by Real Salt Lake’s backline.
And now the team that has made its reputation out of clutch playoff performances by its biggest names is wondering how they all went so quiet. Even though Jaime Penedo has been a revelation in that No. 18 shirt, the ghost of Mike Magee once wearing it will haunt StubHub Center all winter. And that pain is a wholly new one.
There’s the chronic pain that just won’t go away no matter what. It’s hard to understand exactly what a longtime MetroStars/Red Bulls fan feels unless you are one. Or know one. Contrary to popular belief, “That’s so Metro” is not something said in jest.
It all felt so different this time in New York. Mike Petke became a coach Red Bulls fans were proud to call their own – a far cry from most of his predecessors. He understood the pain of a trophy-less franchise with unending support.
Yes, Petke inherited the keys to a Ferrari, but he’s the only one who made this group work the right way. Thierry Henry knew his role. Tim Cahill put them on his shoulders. Dax McCarty turned in his best season. Every player on the roster fought for each of his teammates.
They finished the season hotter than ever, unbeaten in eight, winning their first Supporters’ Shield and nearly snatching a huge result in Houston in the first leg. And that old sick feeling came back again, as they bombed out of the playoffs in the same fashion.
It’s hard to see now, but Petke has done more to get this team going in the right direction than any coach before him not named Bob Bradley. They won a trophy – a real one. Some fans are thumbing their noses at it, but they shouldn’t. It’s real. It’s legit. You can never take it away.
For now, the Red Bulls are MLS’ version of the Denver Broncos, circa 1996. I believe they’ll get over the final hump soon. But for now, it’s back to same old feeling. You may miss it when it’s gone.
Then there’s the true, gut-wrenching pain. No team in MLS was saddled with more expectations than the Sounders. Their fans are spoiled by a passionate, devoted and deep-pocketed ownership group that will spare no expense or overcooked fantasy to get the parts they need to succeed.
Except they didn’t. The big-money additions of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey upset the equilibrium. They lost the plot on the field. The Sounders just stopped looking like the Sounders.
After a midsummer stretch that saw them win eight times in nine games, they won a single game in their final 10, including the playoffs. And when they lost, they lost ugly. Stomped in Colorado. Blitzed at home by Vancouver. Undone in Dallas.
And completely blown out of the water for the first 45 minutes in Portland on Thursday night. That particular result may not have been unexpected. But the finality of it, and where it happened – that’s going to sting for months.
No one quite knows what’s next. Will Sigi Schmid be back? Will Eddie Johnson? Is a rebuild ahead, with Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso as the only untouchables? It’s a scary winter ahead for the fans, but something will happen. No Sounders team has ever had higher championship amibitions and fallen apart so completely. And that really, really hurts.
But don’t despair: None of you are alone. Three more fan bases will join this list soon. And usually, it’s the pain that fuels the hunger to go one better next year.
As the saying goes, in life, pain is inevitable – suffering is optional.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.