Can the Red Bulls have one more trophy celebration this season? (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
I can visualize the hand wringing, teeth gnashing and moaning from long-time Red Bulls as they probably think:
“How in the hell are they going to blow it now?
If you’re a supporter of that New Jersey club, you know what I mean.
Twenty-two Major League Soccer seasons and 22 years of walking home empty.
The Red Bulls, who begin yet another quest for Major League Soccer’s Holy Grail — aka the Philip F. Anschutz Cup — are positioned to run the table or disappoint their faithful yet again.
They begin their journey at Columbus Crew SC Sunday in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
They finished as Supporters Shield winners for the third time in six seasons with the league’s top defense, the most underrated striker in league history in Bradley Wright-Phillips and depth that would make just about the rest of the 22 teams envious.
We all know about heart-break and disappointment.
I don’t have the time or patience to go through every playoff misery in this story — I will be posting a story about Red Bulls’ playoff villains in a while — so I will do some recent history, the last decade, since that atrocious 2009 season:
Losing the lead (2010)
After winning at the San Jose Earthquakes, 1-0, in the first leg of the semifinals, the Red Bull came home to the supposed cozy confines of Red Bull Arena and were flattened, 3-1, on a pair of goals by future Red Bull Bob Convey, who had scored all of three goals during the regular season, and Chris Wondolowski.
Remember me? (2011)
Mike Magee, who was traded by the Red Bulls prior to the 2009 season after striking for several vital goals during their 2008 season and playoff run, came back to haunt his former teammates, connecting in both legs of the semifinals, showing New York the door.
The miss (2012)
Kenny Cooper, the team’s leading goal-scorer (18 goals), missed a penalty kick that had to be retaken against D.C. United — after he converted the first attempt– that cost the Red Bulls a chance to tie. The hosts wound up losing on a Nick DeLeon goal in the 88th minute and were eliminated in the semifinals. Why the great Thierry Henry didn’t take it — the man who criticized Cooper to Red Bulls’ management — is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was the fear of failure. I call it cowardness.
Not enough support (2013)
In Mike Petke’s rookie season as an MLS coach, the Red Bulls won the Supporters Shield. Little good it did in the postseason. After playing to a 2-2 at the Houston Dynamo in the first game of the semifinals, the Red Bull squandered a 1-0 lead in the home leg and lost in extratime on an Omar Cummings’ goal (ex-MetroStars midfielder Brad Davis tallied the equalizer for Houston).
One goal shy (2014)
Teased again. In the wildcard game, the Red Bulls dispatched Sporting Kansas City on a pair of Bradley Wright-Phillips goals, 2-1. Then they got past D.C. United in the semifinals. Incredibly, they dropped the opener of the conference final at home to the New England Revolution, 2-1. Adding insult to insult, BWP, off his incredible 27-goal season, admitted he did not know that his yellow card in the 60th minute of the Red Bulls’ 2-1 MLS playoff loss to the New England Revolution led to a one-game suspension in next week’s second leg. The Red Bulls battled mightily in that encounter in New England, forcing a 2-2 draw. Had they scored one more road goal, they would have reached MLS Cup.
A late wake-up (2015)
Off their second Supporters Shield, the Red Bulls began their conference final seemingly full of themselves as Columbus Crew SC’s Justin Meram struck only nine seconds into the first leg in Ohio and Kei Kamara tallied in the 85th minute in a 2-0 loss. In the home leg, the Red Bulls won, 1-0, scoring way too late, by Anatole Abang three minutes into stoppage time.
More of the same (2016)
The Red Bulls started with a 1-0 loss at Montreal, but could not get their act together at home as BWP’s goal was sandwiched around Ignacio Piatti’s scores in what turned into a 2-1 defeat and yet another semifinal elimination.
Oh, captain, my captain (2017)
After rolling over the Chicago Fire, 4-0, in the wildcard game, the Red Bulls looked like a formidable side entering its semifinal series with Toronto FC. That momentum was killed by a deflating 2-1 loss at RBA, as they conceded two away goals. It was devastating as they could not score enough in the second leg in Toronto, a 1-0 win for New York. Making the climb past Toronto, which went on to capture its first MLS Cup crown, was the red card to captain Sacha Kljestan, who got into a halftime altercation with former Red Bulls striker Jozy Altidore in the tunnel at BMO Field. For someone who is supposed to set an example to his teammates, not exactly the best way to show it. Kljestan was dispatched to what is becoming the Devils Island of MLS, Orlando City SC, for two role players who did not make much of an impact this season.
So, you have to give the supporters credit for their loyalty, tenacity and ability to get amnesia after spring as a new season dawns.
Hope seems eternal.
Wait ’til next year.
Perhaps it’s this year.
After all, nothing lasts forever. Just ask the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.
For their sake, Red Bulls fans hope they don’t have to wait a century before their heroes take the final victory lap of the MLS season.