By Michael Lewis
During my time hitting the keys – typewriter and computer – I have covered several local teams that have reached the championship game or series of their respective leagues.
My first time involved the Rochester Americans, who captured the 1982 Calder Cup as champions of the American Hockey League.
Another team that comes to mind was the Long Island Rough Riders, who danced around Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale, N.Y. after securing the 1995 U.S. Interregional Soccer League crown.
Then there were the 2008 Red Bulls, who gave us a 21st century definition of Cinderella. Well, sort of.
By the time the 2008 Major League Soccer season had finished, the Red Bulls were fortunate just to reach the playoffs. They finished in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a medicore 10-11-9 record and 39 points
Still, they reached the playoffs because there was a league rule in those days that the top eight teams would qualify for the playoffs. The Red Bulls had a better record than the fourth-place team out West, the Colorado Rapids (11-14-5, 38).
So, not only did they book a spot in the post season, they were going to try to reach the final through the Western Conference, not the traditional East route.
With only two games remaining in the season, the Red Bulls were reeling they with a four-game winless streak (0-3-1) and looked like they were going to miss out on the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade (1999).
Then came the crushing blow on Oct. 16, goalkeeper Jon Conway and center back Jeff Parkes were suspended for a league-record 10 games and fined 10 percent of their annual salaries for violating the MLS substance abuse and behavioral health policy (SAB0.
I will never forget where I received that stunning information – on my day off. My wife Joy and I were on the second floor of a Barnes and Noble. I decided to check my phone and saw an email from the league announcing the suspension. Red alerts sounded in my head. This was bigger than a coach getting fired. That happens frequent enough in soccer. Just how many times do players get the book thrown at them via a 10-game drug suspension?
We were supposed to go out to dinner, but that became history. We brought in deli and I worked the rest of the night on the story for the New York Daily News and my website.
It looked bleak for the Red Bulls. Conway’s replacement was Danny Cepero, who had zilch MLS experience. So, the remaining two games certainly would be intriguing. In his MLS debut against the Columbus Crew on Oct. 18, Cepero acquitted himself well for a rookie in a 3-1 win at Giants Stadium.
What made bigger headlines came in the 83rd minute. With the Red Bulls clinging to a 2-1 lead, Cepero, off a free kick in his own end, booted the ball toward the other side of the field. It took a bounce, then bounced over the head of keeper Andy Gruenebaum and into the goal.
A goal by a goalkeeper?
A goal by a goalkeeper!
Now, how many times have we seen that in our lifetime? And live!
After a rather dismal 5-2 road loss at the Chicago Fire in their season finale, the Red Bulls were forced to play the two-time defending champion Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference semifinals, a home-and-home series. After a 1-1 home draw on Nov. 1, the Red Bulls traveled down to Robertson Stadium as many supporters and media ready for the annual early playoff elimination.
Not this time, Dane Richards ran the Dynamo ragged down the right wing. He scored the first goal of a 3-0 rout and set up another as Juan Pablo Angel and John Wolyniec also scored to join the party on Nov. 8.
The Red Bulls winning on the road in the playoffs happens when there is a total eclipse of the sun.
The next miracle came on Nov. 8, when Cepero and the Red Bulls survived a barrage of shots by Real Salt Lake in a one-shot deal at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah on Nov. 15. Dave Van den Bergh tallied the lone goal of the match on a play he had started dozens of yards away and the Red Bulls incredibly, reached MLS Cup behind a 1-0 win.
Their foes? The Crew, the same Crew they embarrassed on a goalkeeper’s goal the prior month.
This time Cinderella’s beautiful golden carriage turned into a pumpkin as the Crew, the best team during the regular season, recorded a 3-1 victory at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. on Nov. 23. Wolyniec’s 51st-minute goal lifted the Red Bulls into a 1-1 deadlock, but that didn’t last very long. Two minutes later, Chad Marshall snapped the tie as Columbus registered a 3-1 victory to cap a remarkable season and a deserved championship, led by regular-season and playoff MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
It was the only time the Red Bulls had reached MLS’ promise land.
They have teased their fans and media over the years.
The Red Bulls, many say, are the closest thing to the Chicago Cubs of soccer. They put together good teams, sometimes very good teams, but are just not good enough to survive the playoffs.