Monday November 30th, 2015

HARRISON, N.J. — The ball flew over the heads of the players crowded in the penalty box, and the dwindling crowd at Red Bull Arena swelled in volume once they saw where that ball was headed.

Red Bulls striker Anatole Abang, whose goal earlier in stoppage time had set up a hectic end to this second leg of this Eastern Conference Championship on Sunday, was on the end of the cross. He flicked it to defender Matt Miazga. Miazga lofted the ball over scrambling Columbus Crew defenders. It fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who beat the onrushing goalkeeper Steve Clark to the ball, making smart contact with his head.  

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​If Wright-Phillips’s effort had sailed high or wide of the goal, like nine of his teams’ 15 total shots did on Sunday, it might never have been remembered. Instead, it became one of the indelible moments of the MLS playoffs—this year, or any year. Wright-Phillips’s header, the key to an astounding Red Bulls stoppage-time comeback, trickled along the goal line before nudging the inside of the post and being cleared, just as the final whistle sounded.

The Red Bulls had won 1-0, but fell to the Columbus Crew 2-1 on aggregate in the Eastern Conference championship.

As a result, the Columbus Crew moved on to MLS Cup, where it will play the Portland Timbers (A team that knows a thing or two about getting help from a well-placed goalpost in the playoffs). The Red Bulls, after a hugely successful season, will watch from home.

“It’s painfully unbelievable how that game ended,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch told reporters after the game. “It hurts. That locker room is in pain right now.”

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​Wright-Phillips’s near miss is the type of unbelievable play that earns a nickname, so that fans can refer back to it quickly, for no other word can quite encapsulate the feeling. And while “The Post” may become shorthand for the moment, it shouldn’t come to define this game.

Sunday was not just another “That's so Metro” playoff failure, and “The Post” didn’t single-handedly bring down the Red Bulls.

What happened was simple: The end for a good team at the hands of another that just played better over the course of 180 minutes.

“I just thought we were outplayed, outworked, out-coached for most of the series,” Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said. “Columbus deserved to advance.”

If there is a worry going forward for the Red Bulls, it will be that the team failed to step up in the biggest of moments, even when the game was there to be taken.

Columbus boasted the league’s 16th-ranked defense (based on goals allowed) this season. Yet time and time again the Crew found ways to limit New York, which scored the most goals in the league by a considerable margin in 2015. Columbus’ central midfield duo of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani had a lot to do with that, as each stepped up to disrupt attacks in key moments, and more often than not followed that up with intelligent distribution to the flanks.

Still, Wright-Phillips is one of the most opportunistic scorers the league has ever seen. Mike Grella excelled like few others at putting opposing defensive units under pressure. Lloyd Sam has speed and skill to burn. Sacha Kljestan has the vision to unlock all these tools. On paper, the Red Bulls should have found a way through.

Mind games are not won on paper. Throughout the first half in New York, as in Columbus, the Crew came out with the intention of coming at the Red Bulls with a flurry of physical challenges. The Red Bulls responded rashly at times, with challenges and tackles that seemed primarily aimed at getting even. Instead of shrugging off the challenges and pushing for goals, the Red Bulls allowed frustration to seep into their play.

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“We talked at halftime about staying focused, not letting the referee bother us, not letting the physicality bother us,” Kljestan said, and the results showed in the second half. New York was far more dynamic and single-minded in its approach, but by then Columbus had no reason to push forward as adventurously as it had in the first half. Abang’s stoppage-time goal and “The Post” were simply too little, too late. 

“Smart move from them, right?,” Marsch said of Columbus’ strategy of fouling. “The only way to deal with that as a referee is to give out yellow cards for tactical fouls, because once a guy picks up a yellow he’s going to be very careful about the fouls he’s going to commit. It didn’t happen enough in either game, so that tactic wound up being successful for them.”

And so another promising season ends in Harrison, as so many have before, just on the cusp of greater success. But this one feels different. It’s easy to forget considering that his was the Red Bulls’ sixth consecutive playoff appearance and second straight year in the conference finals, but the team is in Year 1 of a rebuilding project. It started the year seemingly in turmoil, with an inexperienced GM coming in and fan discontent at an all-time high following the dismissal of Mike Petke as manager (which is saying something, considering how bad the team has been at times in its history).

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This wasn’t ending Thierry Henry’s career without a trophy, as in 2014. It wasn’t succumbing to an Omar Cummings extra time goal in 2013 (which weirdly happened at the same spot on the same post as Wright-Phillips’ on Sunday). Nor was it losing to bitter rival D.C. United in a nor’easter in 2012, or any of the other playoff failures of the past. This one was different, because there is plenty of reason for optimism afterwards.

Barring any unexpected offseason losses, the Red Bulls look poised to repeat as one of the league’s most dangerous and balanced teams. The roster is young and balanced. The spine of the team, from Goalkeeper of the Year Luis Robles through central midfielders McCarty and Kljestan and all the way up to Wright Phillips, is about as solid as it comes in the league. And in Marsch, they have an even-keeled coach that was able to keep things in perspective, even minutes after one of the craziest and heartbreaking endings imaginable.

“This is, no question, a successful season,” Marsch said. “It was just an inch, two inches, from having the chance to be even more special.”

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