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Red Bulls Stampede Fire in MLS Playoff Opener, Set Up Date With Toronto

Typically it's the Red Bulls who fall short in the playoffs but it was Chicago's turn on Wednesday.

The two largest markets in the eastern half of the country, New York and Chicago, managed to avoid each other in the MLS playoffs for 17 years. Then they finally reconvened Wednesday night, and it was pretty much over inside 15 minutes.

The Red Bulls are notorious for their postseason misfortune. But at least they have experience. The host Fire, in their first playoff game in five years, appeared unready and overwhelmed. New York stars Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan scored early and that was more than enough for the sixth-seeded Red Bulls, who won the Eastern Conference knockout-round contest, 4-0, at the Fire’s Toyota Park. New York is only the fourth visitor to win at the league's one-and-done stage in 17 tries.

The Fire’s season of renewal was cut short, while the Red Bulls will move on to face Supporters Shield winner Toronto FC in the two-game conference semis. First, here are three thoughts on Wednesday night’s anticlimactic playoff opener in Chicago.

A slow finish, then a quick start

On the surface, New York’s hot start Wednesday came from nowhere. This is a squad that won only two of its final 11 regular season games and suffered the agony of a U.S. Open Cup final defeat to boot. Granted they also won two of their last three, but this wasn’t a team in great form and as a sixth seed, it wasn’t a group many expected to go far.

Perhaps low expectations are what the two-time Shield winners needed.

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"We’re in the best moment we’ve been all year. Truly," coach Jesse Marsch said last weekend. “I feel like our mentality is strong. I feel like we’ve gotten contribution from a lot of players. I feel like our group is really ready for a big challenge.”

Marsch was right. New York’s pressure and precision devastated Chicago in the early going. The Red Bulls (15-12-8) took the lead in only the seventh minute. Defender Damien Perrinelle clipped a ball over the top, Wright-Phillips took a touch and Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson hesitated just long enough to leave the English striker with an easy tap-in.

Four minutes later, Kljestan finished from close range off a perfect cross from Tyler Adams. The third-place Fire (16-12-7) never recovered. New York was dominant on the flanks and the back three hounded and harassed Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic. A decent surge by Chicago early in the second half produced no reward and with the hosts then committing additional players forward, New York’s Daniel Royer and Gonzalo Verón added insurance goals.

The final score looked harsh, but the ultimate result never really was in doubt.

Big night for New York’s stars

Wright-Phillips’ early playoff performances had been good, by New York standards. He netted five goals in his first six postseason games as a Red Bull. But then the production slowed. He found the net just twice over six matches in 2015 and 2016 and was stifled until stoppage time of last month’s Open Cup final.

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The Red Bulls needed a big game from him Wednesday. And they got it. Wright-Phillips’ opener was his 99th goal for the club. The front-runner then did damage from a more withdrawn position, as his vision and subtle switches in the point of attack freed Adams for the cross to Kljestan and then Royer for the 70th-minute play that resulted in New York’s third goal.

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Kljestan was influential throughout as his range, skill and sense of timing and tempo were the story in midfield. His well-timed run in the 11th left Juninho grasping and lifted the Red Bulls to a 2-0 lead, and his beautiful high pass to Verón was a late highlight.

“When he plays well, the team plays well,” Wright-Phillips told Fox when asked about the New York captain.

Adams had a night to remember as well. Playing wide right in Marsch’s quasi 3-6-1, Adams helped New York exert total control on that side of the field (neutralizing Chicago’s David Accam), and the dribble and pass that set the table for Kljestan were top class. Royer, Perrinelle and Verón made their contributions, and goalkeeper Luis Robles made the one tough save he had to, on Dax McCarty’s second-half header. The veteran goalie was fortunate his subsequent kick toward a Fire player went unsanctioned, but it was that kind of night for New York’s big names.

“It was a real professional performance,” Wright-Phillips said. “We’ve got to take a lot of confidence from this. It’s tough to come to Chicago and win, 4-0. Toronto’s a different task and a tough team to play, and we’ll prepare for that.”

Toronto is loaded with big players. New York will need similar performances from theirs to have a chance.

The Fire faded out

Perhaps Fire fans would’ve been O.K. with a third-place finish after two straight years alone in the MLS cellar. Perhaps the pain of Wednesday’s loss will fade over the winter and the club will feel good about its direction. But this still was a frustrating end to a season that once seemed so promising.

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From early May through early July, Chicago went on an 8-0-3 run that made them look like championship contenders. But the Fire went on a skid in August and never recovered their previous form. From July 4 on, they beat just one eventual playoff team—San Jose, which finished with a losing record—and entered the playoffs beset with two key injuries.

German talisman Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose signing did so much to confirm owner Andrew Hauptman’s ambition for the club, missed the end of the regular season with a thigh injury and played just the final 25 minutes on Wednesday. And Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw, whose attacking versatility often was the crucial key to the Fire’s offense, was lost to a torn ACL on September 30.

Absent Schweinsteiger and De Leeuw and with their wide players stifled, Chicago was quiet for significant stretches Wednesday and never really were a danger to New York. The Fire were a short-handed team, playing in front of a sparse week-night crowd, getting throttled in their biggest game in years. They've made significant progress under GM Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic and will have to hope that kind of playoff disappointment doesn’t set them back.