Even when the score was 1-1 last Sunday afternoon in Harrison, N.J., the New England Revolution were in control of their home-and-away series with the New York Red Bulls.
With an away goal on the board and Bradley Wright-Phillips having earned a yellow card and suspension for the second leg, the Revolution would have been thrilled to head home just like that. But with a precision counterattack, triggered by Lee Nguyen, aided by Teal Bunbury and finished off by Jermaine Jones, New England grabbed a late-winner that puts New York in a huge hole.
The Red Bulls now – without their 31-goal (regular season and playoffs) scorer Wright-Phillips – need to go to Gillette Stadium next Saturday and win by two or win and score three goals. It’s a daunting task, for sure.
Consider: There’s only been three occasions where a team that has lost the first leg at home has come back to win the away leg and advance: In 2006, the Colorado Rapids lost 2-1 at home to the Dallas Burn and won 3-2 away, then advanced on a wild PK shootout. Obviously, that was before MLS adopted the away goals tiebreaker.
In 2010, the San Jose Earthquakes lost 1-0 at home to the Red Bulls, then won 3-2 away to win on aggregate. And in 2012, the LA Galaxy lost 1-0 at home to San Jose, then won 3-1 away.
Also consider: In terms of big deficits overcome in the second leg, just twice has a team been down two goals after the first leg and come back and won (which is where the Red Bulls figuratively are at this point). In 2004, the Kansas City Wizards lost 2-0 at San Jose, but won 3-0 at home to advance.
And, of course MLS fans will never forget, the 2003 San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy, when the Quakes lost 2-0 at home and went down 4-0 on aggregate during the second leg, before scoring five unanswered goals, the last a Golden Goal winner by Rodrigo Faria, to advance. So, a daunting task, but not impossible.
Perhaps the Red Bulls can draw some solace from knowing they did defeat the Revolution by a 2-0 score in Foxboro on June 8. But that was when the Revolution were going through their eight-game losing streak. And that was before they had added Jones. The Revs have given up more than one goal at home just once since July 1 and carry a nine-game home unbeaten streak into the second leg. Those are trends New England will try to build on.
As for what New York has to do, the answer comes in two simple words. Just play. The worst thing New York coach Mike Petke can do in this situation is make demands of his team by suggesting, for example, that they need to score early, or even that they need to score first. Until there are less than 30 minutes to play in the match, this game needs to breathe.
Without Wright-Phillips, New York does not want to make this a run-and-shoot type of game. They should do what they do best, and that’s move the ball around, find Thierry Henry when he’s open, and try to put as many threatening balls as possible into Bobby Shuttleworth’s box. No need to throw too many players into the attack, which would open them up to the type of counter that resulted in New England’s second goal on Sunday. Not for the first hour, anyway.
In the first leg, it was apparent from the beginning that Petke did not want New England playmaker Lee Nguyen to have time and space to do his thing, so the Red Bulls were doing everything in their power to get in on his feet and attempt to make his afternoon miserable. They’re going to want to continue to do that, albeit with fewer fouls around their box.
If you go back to the first half of the first leg, it appeared that the Red Bulls' plan was working. New York had dominated most of the half, especially the time after Bunbury’s brilliant goal in the 17th minute, and Nguyen was not getting much of the ball. As the game wore on, though, Nguyen reappeared, and delivered several telling balls before his perfectly-timed diagonal pass to spring Bunbury into the box on Jones’ game-winner. Nguyen showed it takes a special effort to mark him out of a match. But New York must remember, the plan was working.
At the end of most playoff games, there are plenty of “what ifs,” and the first leg was no different. The biggest one the Red Bulls were asking themselves was, “what if we finished our chances?” Wright-Phillips put one away, but had at least a couple he’d want back, for sure.
Who gets the start in BWP’s place? Petke remained coy throughout the week. But no matter who it is – Australia all-time leading scorer Tim Cahill figures to be the simple answer – figure, so long as Henry’s there to provide service, he will get a chance or two to get on the board. Of course, that opens up the whole discussion of Henry playing on the Gillette Stadium Field Turf, which he has avoided throughout his MLS career.
Is it an issue? Not in one game. If Henry was being asked to play a string of games on the surface that would be entirely different. This is a one-off, and Henry will be fine. Considering it might be the last game of his career, and that he’s coming off a sub-par first-leg performance, chances are he’ll be more than fine.
The Red Bulls are not where they want to be. Needing a 2-0 victory or three away goals to advance to MLS Cup is far from ideal. But the Revolution will be tested. Sometimes playing with a lead presents new and different challenges. Sometimes teams with the lead have a tough time trying to figure out how to balance the field over 90 minutes.
Sit back at your own peril. The words Heaps is likely to utter in his locker room are probably the same as what Petke will say.