WASHINGTON, D.C. – Dax McCarty wanted to play D.C. United.
He wanted to play them despite the fact that United entered this fall’s MLS Cup playoffs as a top-seeded team unbeaten in its past six matches. He wanted to play them despite the postseason hex United had over his New York Red Bulls: four straight series wins dating back to the league’s inaugural season, including a surreal 2012 heartbreaker that featured own goals, red cards, a missed penalty kick and a blizzard. Everything that could have gone wrong did – as it typically does for New York in the postseason.
Before Saturday's game, the Red Bulls hadn’t advanced past the conference semis in six years. They hadn’t won a home playoff game in nine. Last season, as the Supporters Shield winner, they fell in overtime to the visiting Houston Dynamo. “Metro Playoff Failure” was in the water in Harrison, N.J.
Yet McCarty wanted to play United. He felt his fourth-seeded squad’s confidence surge after ousting 2013 champion Sporting Kansas City on Oct. 30 in the Eastern Conference knockout round. He knew the Red Bulls had been competing with playoff intensity for weeks just to ensure qualification. And he knew his club’s agonizing experience eventually would pay dividends.
“There’s a lot to be said for teams that kind of get hot at the right time. D.C., I think we’ve seen they’ve had a tremendous season, fighting for the Supporters Shield, but they weren’t playing their best soccer toward the end of the season,” McCarty told SI.com Saturday at RFK Stadium, where New York lost the game, 2-1, but won the conference semifinal series, 3-2, over D.C. “Any time you go beat a team as good as Sporting Kansas City back to back [in the regular season finale and knockout round], that has to give your team a ton of confidence, and it did. We were very excited when we realized we were going forward and we were playing D.C.”
New York took command of the two-game series last weekend at Red Bull Arena, where Thierry Henry had two assists and McCarty helped anchor a dominant midfield throughout a comprehensive 2-0 victory. On Saturday at RFK, there were moments where New York might have buckled in the past. United controlled possession and got a break when the referee didn’t whistle Bobby Boswell for a 30th-minute handball in the penalty area. Nick DeLeon opened the scoring in the 37th minute and goalkeeper Bill Hamid stopped Red Bull marksman Bradley Wright-Phillips on a breakaway shortly thereafter.
“I thought it was our night,” United coach Ben Olsen said following the game. It wasn’t.
“We were a little down but we weren’t panicking. We told each other not to panic. ‘Let’s keep playing. All we need is one goal. We want to attack and all we need is one,’” McCarty said of the halftime conversation.
They got it, on a beautiful cross from Henry and a close-range finish from Peguy Luyindula. And despite Roy Miller’s late red card and Sean Franklin’s stoppage-time goal, New York held on. Finally.
“We’ve always been our own worst enemy. I don’t think there’s ever been a team that I’ve played against in the playoffs that has knocked us out that just completely outplayed us. We always found a way to shoot ourselves in the foot," McCarty said. "I honestly think it’s that experience of those failures in the past that’s helped us out so much.”
The fact that this team has been able to use those failures as fuel is the difference. They’re neither a burden nor some sort of bogeyman standing inevitably in New York’s path.
“I don’t think along those lines. It’s a beautiful thing to put in the papers, a beautiful thing to talk about on TV,” said New York coach Mike Petke, a former Red Bull defender, said. “But this team has reversed this club’s fortunes on a number of occasions over two years. The Supporters Shield, little things like going to New England [in June] and winning for the first time in 12 years, now beating D.C. for the first time in history.”
Wright-Phillips recalled his 41st-minute miss and said, “We could have crumbled there, and they had their fans obviously. We could have crumbled but we didn’t … Today I don’t think [thoughts of past failure] crept in on anyone. Sure not me. I’ve been in games where it has crept in, those kinds of thoughts. But today, we all had our jobs to do and we all saw them through.”
No nerves. No drama. Just the sort of focused professionalism that was almost guaranteed to elude New York in the past (one could argue Miller’s ejection might qualify, but at that point D.C. needed three goals in 12 minutes to survive). In the locker room, Henry was typically aloof.
How did it feel to make his first trip to the MLS Cup semis in five tries?
“Like you can play another game. Two, actually. Another round. That’s it,” he said.
Henry, the face of those critical steps forward that Petke referenced, very well may be approaching the end of his career, or at least his stay in New York. He’s 37 years old and his contract is set to expire. He’d brought so much attention and class to the club, yet “Metro Playoff Failure” had persisted. Henry had tallied one goal and two assists in eight postseason games heading into 2014. He now has four more helpers, including Saturday’s backbreaker. He set up all three goals New York scored in the series against D.C.
“Thierry has not been a disappointment in the playoffs,” Petke said. “It’s 11 players on the field. Thierry is the best player this league has ever seen. Even right now, when he’s at his best and he’s up for it, he’s the best player. The team as a whole stepped up this time.”
“Apart from the L.A. [playoff] game that we had [three] years ago, we controlled all the games before but we shoot ourselves in the foot with mistakes,” he said. “I don’t think that was one of our best games today, but we managed to suffer well and score when we had to score.”
Suffering badly is something the Red Bulls had perfected. Negotiating adversity in a playoff, avoiding errors and making a play in the clutch – that was something new. McCarty said he saw it coming.
“This year, with the experiences we’ve had in the past, we’ve learned to just make sure we’re not going to beat ourselves,” he said. “And we’re not satisfied. We’re happy we’re moving on, but we know there’s a lot of work ahead.”