HARRISON, N.J. – At a certain point, it all just becomes a bit cruel.
In the span of a half-decade or so, the New York Red Bulls remade themselves from bungling league laughing stock to a model franchise in Major League Soccer. The Austrian-owned club built one of the nicest stadiums in the league – albeit slightly too far from the five boroughs – and one of the best practice facilities. Its academy system is the envy of most of its competitors. It has long since stopped relying on expensive fading stars to compete and remade itself into a team that built a coherent system and developed players to function within it.
And the Red Bulls have won. A lot.
Without the fanfare they probably deserve, the Red Bulls claimed four of the last six Eastern Conference regular season titles. And in three of those seasons, including this one, they also won the Supporters’ Shield for the best overall record in MLS. The team’s record over that span was an unambiguous 100-57-47. Its 71 points this regular season set a new MLS record. In most countries, that would earn the team plaudits as a domestic powerhouse.
This is not most countries. Because this country has playoffs.
And in those playoffs, the Red Bulls have stranded in the conference semifinals three times and in the conference finals three times. Painfully, they were eliminated on away goals once, in extra time once, and by a lone goal twice.
The third of those conference finals eliminations seemed preordained before actually coming to pass on Thursday. The first leg was lost 3-0 away to Atlanta United on Sunday. It was just the second time all season that the Red Bulls lost by more than a single goal. And it made for a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
So there went the hopes of a team favored to finally put an end to its playoff futility. Sure enough, a joyless 1-0 injury time win on a chilly night at Red Bull Arena extended the misery by another year.
For the 22nd time in its 23 seasons, the Red Bulls will fall short of the MLS Cup Final. To date, its only appearance came in 2008, even though the team placed fifth in the seven-team Eastern conference and posting a losing regular season record. It’s one of the abiding ironies of the beleaguered franchise: it has yet to match the heights it somehow stumbled onto long before it addressed its own, seemingly unshakable dysfunction.
That the Red Bulls were this close to the championship at all is a feat of sizable scope, considering the challenges of its season. Jesse Marsch, the head coach of three and a half seasons, left the club suddenly in early July for what turned out to be a gig as an assistant for Bundesliga sister club RB Leipzig. And he did so just days before the cross-town grudge match with New York City FC. The Red Bulls lost that game, but then won five of six and later finished the regular season with five straight wins – four of which were shutouts. A 1-0 first leg conference semifinal loss to the spirited Columbus Crew was righted at home with an emphatic 3-0 win.
But this was a tall task. So tall in fact, that emails from the Red Bulls to their fans beseeched them to still show for the return leg, no matter the unlikelihood of success.
“With you, anything is possible,” went the subject of one email.
“Be a part of history,” pleaded another, underscoring the never-done-before magnitude of the job at hand.
They did show in healthy numbers, braving cold and rush hour traffic. But there would be no history
A mere 15 seconds in, the Red Bulls’ Tyler Adams very nearly made a hard scenario impossible with a dodgy back pass to his goalkeeper Luis Robles that was intercepted by the league’s record-smashing goalscorer Josef Martinez. But Robles saved then and on some other early looks for United as well.
His peers, however, produced no chances of consequence against an organized visiting team for most of the game. Atlanta had its defensive affairs buttoned up tightly. They let the Red Bulls come at them and repelled their lumped high balls simply.
The most notable thing to happen in the first half was when Miguel Almiron was hit by something thrown from the stands – maybe.
Early in the second half, New York’s Alex Muyl’s toes were a tad too short to dink a low cross into an empty net and Aaron Long had a goal disallowed by video review when it showed that he’d jostled Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan into dumping the high ball into his own net.
At length, in the 94th minute, Tim Parker poked a loose ball into United’s net. But it was far too little and much too late.
Now, the Red Bulls look back on another successful season that somehow concluded unsuccessfully. “A part of me is numb to all of it because of the overwhelming amount of disappointment,” Robles said after the game.
But the Red Bulls have, by necessity, learned to absorb the endless losses in the key games in a constructive way. “It was incredible, the way the guys won the [Supporters’] Shield,” Armas said after the game. “It just makes us hungrier. It’s going to come – that’s the mentality. We’ve won a lot. Major success. So we focus on all the good that we do. So we come to work every day and we keep going. It’s coming.”
Long after the final whistle, the Red Bulls’ South Ward supporters’ section still stood and cheered as the vanquished home team waited on the Eastern Conference trophy ceremony, for which it was apparently expected to stick around. Robles, the captain, lingered and applauded the fans.
“That disappointment may not go away, but I can say that it will fuel me for next season,” he said later. “As long as we haven’t won it, there’s going to be this motivation to continue to go. Because it’s all you can do.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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