Cold night in Harrison: Scenes from another Red Bulls tragedy

A distraught Kenny Cooper leaves the field. (Howard Megdal)
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The few thousand fans who showed up at Red Bull Arena Thursday for the Eastern Conference semifinal match between the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United, without question, were extremely excited to be there. They had to be.

The playoff match had been rescheduled less than 24 hours earlier. M.L.S. commissioner Don Garber had to issue an apology for not rescheduling the game sooner.

The stadium was cold: 33 degrees at kickoff, with a blustery wind. No PATH trains were yet running, and a gas shortage in the area made driving to a soccer match that much more perilous.

Still, the Red Bulls had plenty to play for. A win would lift them into the Eastern Conference finals, where they'd have home field advantage in the decisive second leg. And upsets in the Western Conference meant if the Red Bulls advanced to M.L.S. Cup, it would be hosted at Red Bull Arena.

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One enthusiastic young fan, flanked by his brother and father, all dressed in Red Bulls attire, was asked whether he had attended Wednesday night as well.

"No," he said, solemnly, as he stood in a concession line for tacos. "My mom didn't let us."

So one day after a fierce storm postponed that match Wednesday night, a larger, though by no means large, contingent watched the Red Bulls lose to D.C. United, 1-0, in almost operatic fashion. The loss was at once shocking, given how it happened, and absolutely consistent with the epic failures that have defined the Red Bulls since they were Metrostars.

Players like Rafa Marquez and Roy Miller provided foreshadowing for their mistakes and limitations earlier in the game, earlier in the season, and really, since the moment each signed with the Red Bulls.

And tragic American hero Kenny Cooper failed at the one skill that allowed him to become a vital, yet underappreciated member of the Red Bulls: scoring goals.

Like many of the gut-wrenching losses that have defined Major League Soccer in New York, it appeared, right up to the very end, as if the result would be a happy one. D.C. United had an early chance, but goalkeeper Luis Robles managed to snuff out a Lionard Pajoy shot attempt. And it is hardly an exaggeration to say D.C. United failed to so much as threaten the Red Bulls' defense for most of the remaining match.

Rafa Marquez, the expensive Mexican import who has seemed to alternate between injuries and ill-timed spurts of violence leading to disciplinary action, was under control early, snuffing out some D.C. United ideas and setting the Red Bulls' counter with crisp passing from center back.

New York's attempts to score continued to fall just short. Both Dax McCarty and Thierry Henry took shots inside the penalty area, and an inventive shot from Joel Lindpere rolled through three D.C. defenders and missed the corner of the goal by mere inches in the 30th minute.

Sure, the two teams entered the half scoreless, but there was little question who had control of the match. As the second half commenced, the hardy crowd, perservering as the temperature dropped into the twenties, grew louder. The Red Bulls had their home field advantage.

It very nearly carried them to victory. In the 59th minute, Cooper found Henry with a beautiful cross; Henry's header was saved by D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid. So was a point-blank shot from McCarty.

So when Cooper broke away from the pack in the 69th minute, drew contact with Hamid, which resulted in a red card for Hamid and a penalty kick for Cooper, the Red Bulls were set to reap the reward for their superior play.

Hamid, livid, was replaced. Cooper, whose scoring prowess allowed him to lead the Red Bulls in goals with 18, calmly prepared. He stutter-stepped toward the ball and beat replacement goalkeeper Joe Willis. Red Bulls led, 1-0. The delirious fans, warmed by success, grew louder.

Except no. When Cooper stutter-stepped, both Henry and fellow designated player Tim Cahill had entered the forbidden area, and the referee called it. Cooper was forced to retake the kick, and Willis saved it. The match remained scoreless.

Still, the Red Bulls had dominated much of the match, and held a man advantage. Should the score remain tied after 90 minutes, the two teams would play thirty minutes of extra time. And it would all happen before a boisterous home crowd.

Except. Marquez's challenges had been coming more frequently, and seemingly more reckless by the second. He'd earned a yellow card in the 61st minute for a tackle he'd entered into, leading with his fist. It could have been a red. And the first yellow didn't slow him down any.

How predictable was Marquez's subsequent red card? Multiple reporters suggested taking Marquez out before it happened, as if Marquez and a red card were destined for one another.

So just minutes after the Red Bulls were handed an advantage, Marquez gave it back with another reckless tackle. No one argued. There was nothing to say.

That seemed to take the energy from the crowd, now just tired, cold, and aware of how this always ends.

In the 88th minute, an  attack by D.C. United, one of the few they mounted all night, resulted in a Nick DeLeon goal. The Red Bulls trailed, 1-0.

But one last bit of false hope remained. Shortly before the end of injury time, a D.C. challenge led to a Red Bulls free kick just beyond the 18. It was surely Henry time, one of the most dangerous finishers in the world, brought to New York precisely for moments like these.

And then: the kick was taken by defender Roy Miller, who had just entered the game. Miller's three-year tenure with the Red Bulls has been defined by inexplicable mistakes and overzealous forward surges culminating in wayward shots. His defensive mistakes are always explained away by the coaching staff by pointing out the value in having him pressure the opposing defense with his runs, but in 79 appearances over three seasons, Roy Miller has zero goals for the New York Red Bulls.

His free kick, perhaps 15 feet over the goal, was entirely familiar to anyone who had seen him shoot before. Henry just watched in disbelief. A moment later, the final whistle blew.

After the match, coach Hans Backe refused to speculate about the future, though his contract is up, and it is widely expected that he has just coached his last game with New York.

"It’s a tough thing to lose," Backe said at his presser following the match. "We knocked on the door for 90 minutes, played a good game, (created) a number of chances against a team who was sitting the whole time, but we were still able to create enough chances to win this game. But still, you could say that’s football, they did get one or two chances and were effective on the last one. I can’t be negative on our team’s effort; it was a good game from us."

Shortly after, the locker room opened. As the press entered, Cahill ushered us away from a still-shellshocked Cooper, who had been visibly crying as he left the pitch, saying that Cooper would not be talking. He sat, utterly dejected, at his locker, staring somewhere distant, while Cahill answered questions of the pack across the room, shirtless and dispirited.

"What can you say? It’s life. I’ve missed penalties in the past. I don’t even for one instant blame him. He has 18 goals. The keeper gets two bites at the cherry, it’s a 50-50 chance and the young kid that comes in saved it. I’ve missed penalties in the past and he shows great courage to step up and take it and to step up again. Eighteen goals, the way he’s played this season he’s probably one of the best strikers in the league, so that’s what I look at. I look at what he’s done for our team. I don’t want him to talk, who wants to talk after that. We’re a team, we look after each other and this is why I’m here. I want to make sure that my players can walk away with a bit of pride."

For Cahill, even walking at all was no easy task. He revealed that he'd been playing with a tear in his calf for weeks, which probably explains his reduced effectiveness over the season's final stretch. Cahill planned to come off once Cooper converted the penalty.

If the rest of the locker room was utterly dejected, Rafa Marquez, the man as responsible as anyone for the loss, seemed as untroubled as his teammates were abjectly grieving their season. It had been reported by ESPN during the match that he would be moving to Mexican club Atlas on an offseason loan; it has been thought all season that Atlas could be a landing spot for Marquez permanently, once the Red Bulls decide to give up on the Marquez experiment (and pay whatever freight is necessary that remains on the final year of his deal).

Smiling for much of the presser as he put on a black button-down shirt, Marquez looked like he was already somewhere else. As he began to speak, Cooper at last got up, slammed the cabinet in his locker shut, and stalked off toward the showers.

"Right now, I need to do something during three months off at another club, to be better next season," Marquez said. "Next season could be my last here and I want to do my best in the next season. It maybe my last opportunity to be a champion in MLS."
Marquez may not get the chance; the same is true for Backe, and even Cooper. With new management in place for the Red Bulls, massive changes look to be in store.

Still, Marquez provided the perfect epitaph for this season, and most of the other 17, title-free years for the Red Bulls and Metrostars.
"It's very bad. We're upset about that [exiting the playoffs early]. Myself, I don't think that I had a good season... I want to be a champion in the MLS, we have everything here [to do it]."

Like always.

Elsewhere in New York sports:

METS

Ken Rosenthal says the Mets are only pretending to be interested in signing R.A. Dickey to an extension, and plan to trade him instead.

YANKEES

The Yankees find out today if Rafael Soriano, Hiroki Kuroda or Nick Swisher will accept one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offers. Otherwise, they become free agents, and should they sign elsewhere, the Yankees will receive draft pick compensation from their new teams. It seems unlikely that any of the three will do so; Kuroda is the best bet of the bunch, if any do.

KNICKS

Off since Monday, the Knicks host the Dallas Mavericks Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

Marcus Camby appears likely to make his Knicks re-debut.

NETS

The Nets need to play better against Orlando Friday night, but they'll do it without Gerald Wallace again.