HARRISON, N.J. – It wasn’t easy, nor was it a pretty affair.
But the New York Red Bulls handled D.C. United on Sunday afternoon with a 1-0 result courtesy of a late Bradley Wright-Phillips strike, advancing to the Eastern Conference Championship in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, 2-0 on aggregate.
New York have now dispatched D.C. in consecutive postseasons after falling to their oldest rivals in their first four playoff encounters.
As is often the case when these two rivals meet, the physicality and intensity was ratcheted up a notch or five. Both sides traded blows throughout the match, but it was the Red Bulls who nearly drew first blood within five minutes.
Off of a well-executed corner routine from Sacha Kljestan, Mike Grella nearly put his team in front in the third minute. The centering feed rolled through the D.C. penalty area as Sal Zizzo faked a shot and Grella struck the effort with venom, rattling the crossbar.
The chippy play ensued in the first 45 as Dax McCarty, Felipe and Alvaro Saborio found themselves in countless rough-and-tumble situations. Referee Ted Unkel let play continue for most of the match, only producing the first yellow card of the afternoon when Chris Rolfe’s cleat caught a large chunk of Luis Robles in the 25th minute.
Kljestan nearly had two goals on the evening, both from similar runs of play on either side of the halftime whistle. Both times he unleashed curling efforts toward Bill Hamid to no avail.
Failing to create much through midfield buildup, United had perhaps their best chance of the match thanks to a brilliant ball from an unlikely source. In the 35th minute, a Hamid drop kick found the feet of former Red Bull Fabian Espindola, but his shot went wide of the mark.
Up a goal on aggregate, New York continued to push forward and dictate play in the second half, nearly tacking on to their lead in the 53rd minute. Kljestan again delivered a picture-perfect ball into the United six-yard box, but defender Ronald Zubar skied his first-time effort well over the net from a wide-open position.
Wright-Phillips flubbed a chance to kill the game in the 90th minute, but made amends in stoppage time. Substitute Gonzalo Veron slipped the Englishman in towards net, and a deft touch past Hamid gave Wright-Phillips the simplest of finishes to seal the Red Bulls’ advancement.
Over 180 minutes at RFK Stadium and Red Bull Arena, United only managed two shots on target, with both coming in the second half of Sunday’s match.
The Red Bulls now await either Columbus Crew SC or Montreal Impact in the Conference Championship, while United’s 2015 campaign comes to an end.
Midway through the second half, it really started to feel like D.C. were going to find their equalizer. They kept switching the field of play from left to right, then hit long ball after long ball up top, and Alvaro Saborio was able to carve out just enough space to make it kinda sorta dangerous. Add in a few set pieces, and… well, that’s the formula that’s had United near the top of the league in three of the last four seasons. You can’t write it off even if it’s ugly.
But New York’s central defenders battled hard, and their central midfielders continued to gobble up second balls:
Dax McCarty had 18 recoveries vs. DC today. That is tied for the third most in a game this season. #NYvDC— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) November 8, 2015
Felipe added another nine recoveries on top of that. Knockdowns don’t mean much if you can’t convert them into looks on goal, and because RBNY’s spine was so active defensively, D.C. couldn’t manage it.
One step closer to an MLS Cup appearance for these Red Bulls. But whoever they play next – Columbus or Montreal – will be well aware of the few areas in which United gave them trouble, and are equipped to capitalize upon it in ways that D.C. simply couldn’t.
– By Matt Doyle, Senior Editor