The 2013 Red Bulls seem determined, still, to shake off the curse of the Metrostars
The Saturday night match at Red Bull Arena went precisely as so many others have through the largely disappointing 17-year history of the New York Red Bulls.
The Red Bulls entered the match needing a point to clinch a playoff spot, and as many as possible to keep alive their bid for the Supporters' Shield. Winning that would provide the franchise with its first real trophy of any kind, and would put Red Bulls in the CONCACAF Champions League next season.
Accordingly, Red Bull Arena sold out a day early. The New England Revolution, the definition of mediocrity this season, looked overmatched early on, with Thierry Henry narrowly missing a shot to give the Red Bulls the lead 90 seconds in. Fabian Espindola gave the Red Bulls the lead in the fourteenth minute, crossing up the scouting report with a right-footed strike. A number of great chances to go up two goals followed, but the Red Bulls couldn't put the match away.
And then: here came the big Metrostars finish. A terrible call went against defender Jamison Olave in the 85th minute, a handball that wasn't anything like a handball, and New Englad tied the score on the ensuing penalty kick. A minute later, the Revolution went down a man. Henry missed an easy chance to put the Red Bulls ahead in the 89th. And the Revolution converted a shocking mistake from defender David Carney into the go-ahead goal in the 91st minute.
Red Bull Arena sat quietly, but not shocked. Coach Mike Petke shook his head, but knowingly, the longtime Metrostar and now Red Bull having seen it so often before. This is how it always goes for the Red Bulls, right?
Not in 2013, so far anyway.
In the 97th minute, the Red Bulls pulled everyone forward for what loomed as the final chance of the match, even goalkeeper Luis Robles. A siren blared in the background. Revolution keeper Matt Reis punched the ball away ... directly toward Tim Cahill, who headed the ball into the net. Jubilation rained down on the giddy Red Bulls. Reis, instead, held the usual Red Bulls pose of disbelief, his hands on his head.
"You have got to be kidding me," Red Bulls color commentator Shep Messing said, observing the scene. "I have never seen Red Bull Arena as crazy as this."
The Red Bulls had their point, and their playoff spot secured. As of now, they have 53 points, the most in M.L.S. A couple of rivals have games in hand, but if the Red Bulls can win their final two, they stand a very good chance of winning that Supporters' Shield.
“When I came here first it was a bit messy,’’ Cahill said following the match. “Everything was just OK, and it was accepted some things that happened in games, and losing. It just wasn’t (cohesive), when you had players coming in and out. Now it’s a team that plays for each other, to the end of every game, and this season shows."
The results back Cahill up. This wasn't the first match with late heroics and an unlikely victory for the Red Bulls in 2013. Whether it was the shocking 4-3 result against Real Salt Lake, followed by a win in Kansas City, this ridiculous bicycle kick from Henry in the 88th minute of a May victory over the Montreal Impact, not to mention late scores to beat the defending M.L.S. Cup winners, the Los Angeles Galaxy, by Cahill, two weeks after he did the same thing to Toronto F.C., the Red Bulls have moved away from late-game defeats as a microcosm for late-season disappointment, the twin hallmarks of the franchise for so long.
That said, there's still time for a Metrostars finish. They're in the playoffs, but that's nothing new: this is the tenth time in eleven seasons the team will be playoff-bound. They'll likely be favored to win once they get there, and that's usually where the Metrostars part kicks in.
But remember: there's nothing preordained about Red Bulls failure. This season, if successful, will look like many others, where the Red Bulls appeared to be set up to succeed, making their collapses that much more painful.
The larger questions, about whether a winning Red Bulls franchise can capture the New York market, remain unanswered for now. The league itself added another New York team, a tacit acknowledgement that they doubted the Red Bulls could ever do it themselves, after nearly two decades of trying.
Would a winning Red Bulls team be treated differently? It's always been a moot point. But Saturday night served as a reminder that the distance between the Red Bulls coming up just short before disappointing crowds, or winning in dramatic fashion in front of sellouts, isn't particularly large. Year after year, the franchise is poised to do it. And then it doesn't happen, again and again.
So here comes the ending, where the 2013 Red Bulls, so far, are doing things their predecessors simply didn't.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated incorrectly that the Red Bulls stand to get into the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time this year. In fact, the team qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League in 2009 by advancing to the 2008 MLS Cup final.