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Red Bulls seal passage to MLS Cup semis with 1-0 win over D.C. United

It was an ugly series made beautiful for the New York Red Bulls by the end result, which at this point is all its long-suffering fans will care about.

The Supporters Shield winners are a step closer to their first MLS Cup title. Ninety minutes of grinding, along with plenty of attacking frustration, were swept away on Sunday afternoon by Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goal in second-half stoppage time. It lifted the host Red Bulls to a 1-0 victory over archrival D.C. United in the second leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal series and a 2-0 aggregate triumph. It marks only the seventh time in team history that New York has won a playoff round.

The Red Bulls eased to a 1-0 win at RFK Stadium last weekend thanks to a goal by captain Dax McCarty.

New York now moves on to MLS’s final four, which is scheduled for Nov. 22 and 29. The conference champion and MLS Cup finalist will be determined at Red Bull Arena—a stadium that’s finally become kind to its owners come playoff time.

Here are three thoughts from New York’s victory: 

Defense Dominates

The most significant concern for New York entering Sunday’s decider was the absence of center back Damien Perrinelle, who tore his ACL in the opening leg at RFK. His partnership with young Matt Miazga, who was just called up to the U.S. national team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, had blossomed. The Red Bulls were 14-3-3 this season when that tandem started in MLS play and just 5-7-3 with another pairing.

Enter Ronald Zubar, who may have been fortunate to escape a red card for a lunging tackle last weekend. Zubar started alongside Miazga and, while neither was flawless, they did a good job limiting the impact of D.C. target man Álvaro Saborío. D.C. was more effective in attack than in the first leg, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Zubar made a nice play in the 32nd minute when he stifled United midfielder Perry Kitchen at close range, and New York’s midfield did well limiting D.C.’s chances to the occasional counter, a few long balls and set pieces.

Perrinelle may be missed against a more potent foe, but on Sunday, New York had the pieces it needed.

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Up front, the Red Bulls were their own worst enemy. Mike Grella set the tone when he hit the crossbar in just the second minute—New York left its finishing boots in the locker room. Wright-Phillips hit D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid with an open look in the 19th and messed up a good opportunity with a poor first touch in the 40th. Zubar was all alone at United’s six-yard line thanks to a perfect 53rd-minute free kick from Sacha Kljestan, but volleyed his shot into the Passaic River. Ten minutes later, Hamid tipped Kljestan’s goal-bound chip over the crossbar.

Meantime, United’s back four did a good job clearing out the numerous crosses New York sent its way.

The hosts didn’t need to score, of course. Their first-leg advantage would have held up. But United was hanging around and any slip-up could have changed the series. Fortunately for the Red Bulls, it was Hamid and Bobby Boswell who slipped. As the game entered the third minute of stoppage time, substitute midfielder Gonzalo Verón won the ball off Boswell and fed Wright-Phillips, who sidestepped Hamid and scored his 18th goal of the season.

“We didn’t play our best,” Wright-Phillips told ESPN. “We were strong at the back and we knew we’d get a chance sooner or later.”

United made New York work for it

Of the eight teams playing Sunday, the Red Bulls (20-10-6) were, by some distance, the most prohibitive favorite to move on. They weren’t the Supporters Shield winners by accident and their recent history in home games against D.C. (16-15-6) was telling—two wins by a combined 5-0 this season and two wins by a combined 3-0 in 2014.

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​United’s hopes were dented further this week when it became apparent that midfielder Chris Pontius (hamstring) and right back Sean Franklin (ankle) would be unable to play. Steve Birnbaum slid out from the middle to fill in for Franklin and Kofi Opare started alongside Boswell, who was returning from suspension. United would remain outnumbered in midfield, hoping that Fabián Espíndola and Chris Rolfe might do some damage on the counter.

Toward the end of the first half, D.C. finally found a bit of footing. United was played off the RFK Stadium pitch during the opening leg and was fortunate not to fall behind early on Sunday. But eventually, the visitors found ways to beat the Red Bull press. Espíndola was especially effective finding pockets of space in front of New York’s back four and United created a couple chances when the hosts were stretched. Hamid’s long outlet to Espíndola in the 36th minute was among them. The Argentine had room to dribble and rip a shot from the left channel that was deflected out for a corner kick. Espíndola set up Saborío and Rolfe for decent chances before halftime.

In the 56th minute, Espíndola forced a save from Luis Robles on a bid from the right. It was United’s first shot on goal in the series. And Boswell sent a looping header into Robles’s arms six minutes later.

On the other end, the D.C. defense gave no quarter until stoppage-time desperation offered Wright-Phillips his opening. New York was going to have to conjure something special to score before then, and it failed to do so.

The Red Bulls certainly deserved to advance. D.C. was second best. But it was no pushover. There’s a reason it led the league in come-from-behind wins this season (eight). United’s needs are obvious. It lacks a player who can reliably distribute and dictate tempo from the middle. It’s slow, predictable, needs depth and, aside from Espíndola and Rolfe, doesn’t have players who can beat opposing defenders and create chances. But coach Ben Olsen’s men have grit and a good sense of who they are, and they made the favored Red Bulls sweat on Sunday.

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New York likely won’t be satisfied with anything but its first MLS Cup title. But toward the end of a season that started with significant upheaval, it’s worth noting that there have been notable accomplishments along the way.

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The Red Bulls are on their way to the MLS semis (it will meet the Columbus Crew or Montreal Impact) for just the fourth time in 20 years, and their second consecutive series win over D.C. should permanently exorcise the ghosts from four straight defeats and seasons of “Metro Playoff Failure.”

New York also, at long last, came through on home turf. The club was an inexplicable 7-9-2 in home playoff games all-time and just 2-5-0 at Red Bull Arena, which opened in 2010. It advanced at home just once in club history, when it beat Sporting Kansas City in last year’s knockout round, and had never clinched a multi-game series in New Jersey. Three years to the day of D.C. midfielder Nick DeLeon’s heartbreaking 88th-minute winner, which sent New York tumbling out of the conference semis, the Red Bulls gave a sell-out crowd reason to celebrate.

“We talked about different moments in Red Bulls history where in the past five years the Red Bulls have gotten a good result on the road and come home and not taken care of business and gotten knocked out of the playoffs,’’ Kljestan told reporters this week. “We don’t want to be that team. We want to rewrite our history.’’