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Red Bulls fall to D.C. United, but advance to Conf. finals on aggregate

WASHINGTON, D.C. —The New York Red Bulls earned passage to the MLS Cup semifinals for the first time in six years and ousted rival D.C. United from the postseason for the first time, period, on Saturday. Despite a 2-1 loss at RFK Stadium, New York won the two-game Eastern Conference semifinal, 3-2 on aggregate, having shut out the top seed last weekend at Red Bull Arena. Here are three thoughts from New York’s long-awaited triumph:

1. Red Bull redemption

New York’s New Jersey-based club hasn’t been called the MetroStars for nearly a decade, but “Metro Playoff Failure” has remained a part of the MLS lexicon. Four consecutive quarterfinal exits, plus a baffling inability to win postseason games on home turf, will keep that sort of phrase alive.

D.C.’s dominance of the series added an additional wrinkle. In addition to a much fuller trophy case, United had won each of the previous four playoff meetings between the clubs. It arguably was a rivalry in name only.

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The pressure of that history, not to mention the prospect that Thierry Henry may be poised to end his legendary career, left New York (15-11-11) carrying a burden heavier than the typical fourth seed. But a win over reigning champ Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference knockout round and last week’s easy 2-0 win over D.C. demonstrated that this year’s outfit is made of different stuff. New York didn’t fold. On Saturday, during moments when past Red Bulls teams might have crumbled, Henry & Co. held their nerve.

United (18-10-9) moved the ball well during the opening half hour but New York remained organized and comfortable. A 30th-minute call didn’t their way — the Red Bulls appealed for a hand ball on Bobby Boswell — and D.C. opened the scoring in the 37th on a header from Nick DeLeon, the man who ended New York’s season two years ago. In the 41st, MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips was stoned on a breakaway by D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid.

That was when things typically unraveled. But this time, they didn’t. New York weathered the start of the second half and took command of the series with Peguy Luyindula’s 57th- minute goal. Needing three to win because of the away-goals tiebreaker, United pushed forward in search of more. But the hosts didn’t get their second goal until stoppage time, by which time “Metro Playoff Failure” was a thing of the past.

2. Henry bolsters his legacy

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Henry’s career, or at least his MLS sojourn, will last at least another three weeks. With no resolution or announcement regarding his expiring contract, there’s been speculation that the French legend might be on his way out. If his run with the Red Bulls ended Saturday, New York’s playoff frustration would have been the only smudge on his MLS legacy.

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He’s brought unprecedented attention and panache to the club, not to mention the 2013 Supporters Shield. But Henry’s record before this season in the matches that mattered most left much to be desired: eight games, one goal, two assists and only one series win (the 2011 knockout round vs. FC Dallas).

The numbers now look much better. The 37-year-old has been magnificent this fall. He assisted on New York’s equalizer in the 2-1 win over SKC and helped set up both goals in last week’s defeat of D.C. On Saturday, he stood up United’s Sean Franklin before delivering a swerving, inch-perfect cross to Luyindula for the goal that broke D.C.’s back.

Henry, looking like his vintage self, is two games away from a spot in the MLS Cup final. The Red Bulls will meet either the New England Revolution or the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference finals.

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3. United perspective

Defeated D.C. is not your typical top seed. This is a team that won only three MLS games last year. Or, at least, it was a franchise that won only three.

The team on the field is far different. Coach Ben Olsen remade his roster around a core of young stars like Hamid, DeLeon and midfielder Perry Kitchen during a smart and ambitious offseason. Boswell, Franklin, Fabián Espíndola and Chris Rolfe, among others, helped reverse the organization’s fortunes. United enjoyed a 25 percent bump in attendance this season and made unprecedented progress toward securing the new stadium it so desperately needs. There was a sold-out crowd of 20,187 at RFK on Saturday, recalling images of D.C.’s glory days. While the result didn’t match the memories, this was hardly a failure. The Red Bulls were due. United will realize it has plenty to build on and now, a winning culture in the locker room.