CHESTER, Pa. — The New York Red Bulls’ 4-3 loss in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs was a recurring nightmare at Talen Energy Stadium.
Sunday, the Red Bulls took a 2-0 lead by the 24th minute, led 3-1 by halftime and then conceded three unanswered goals to end their season and watch the Union celebrate a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Union changed tactics, playing a more direct style. They changed formation, with two strikers and a diamond in the midfield that allowed them more chances to win second balls.
It’s something the Red Bulls saw often during the season, and something that ultimately proved to be their undoing.
“It’s pretty clear that we faced it all season in many ways. You’d think that yeah, we’re ready for that, a long-ball affair,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. “But it just puts a big demand on a team and the back line, and we’re facing more set pieces because of that, second balls coming back into the game. We know the demands of these type of games. We’ve been through it.”
It was a perfect storm for the Red Bulls. Josh Sims, the short-term loanee from Southampton scored his first goal, and likely last one unless the loan is extended or a new deal is reached. But then the influential winger left with an apparent concussion after a collision with Union goalkeeper Andre Blake 20 minutes later.
“When Josh is on the field, he’s a guy — as they’re taking risks and committing numbers, he’s a guy that can make you pay,” Armas said. “It’s not that we don’t have other guys, but he’s certainly, with his speed and he’s dynamic, that’s the weapon up the field.”
Then Kaku, who was one of the Red Bulls better players in the opening half and helped set up goals by Sims and Tim Parker, limped off after 70 minutes.
By the time that happened, momentum had clearly switched to the Union. That switch began when they walked out of the locker room at halftime. A goal by Jack Elliott seven minutes into the half energized a sellout crowd that booed loudly at the halftime whistle and chanted for the Union to wake — an expletive included — up.
“To concede five minutes after the second half started, that’s never easy to handle,” Sean Davis said. “That’s where it takes a lot of courage and bravery to hold on to the ball. That wasn’t the game plan tonight and we didn’t look to keep the ball, we looked to put them under pressure like they did to us. It’s a lot of back and forth and them playing at home, I think that played a big difference. And again, these are lessons we’re going to have to learn for next year.”
Armas spoke of disappointment and being gutted, of the game coming down to one chance the Union took.
He also spoke of being proud of his team for showing up, but this season ended like the 23 other seasons in the club’s history — without an elusive MLS Cup.
And, as a result, hard questions will be asked and, as Armas said, “change is inevitable.”
“I know what real teams look like, and I’m staring at one tonight,” Armas said of the Red Bulls. “I’m proud of the guys that they went after it. They come on the road and scored three goals. Yeah it’s hard to swallow right now, but we’ll regroup and be back next year.”