Whippany, N.J. – Just 48 hours separated the New York Red Bulls from the possible end to its season when the players gathered Friday morning for what could be the team’s penultimate practice of the year.
When 2015 got underway back in March not many foresaw New York’s MLS originals playing deep into November, but the players responded quickly to new coach Jesse Marsch’s tactics, and with the Supporters Shield for the league’s best record already secured, the Bulls set their sights on winning the club’s first-ever MLS Cup.
DC United was not much of an obstacle in the two-leg Eastern Conference semifinals, making last Sunday’s 2-0 loss at Columbus something of a shocker.
New York certainly seemed shocked when Justin Meram shot the Crew into the lead just nine seconds from the opening whistle. Five days later the Red Bulls leading goalscorer Bradley Wright-Phillips admitted that the loss had been a hard one to shake.
“Yeah, it took long, you know obviously one of the biggest games of the season and we start how we did. Obviously it’s frustrating for anyone, we lost the game. But Wright-Phillips is not content to put last Sunday’s result behind him. “I like to hold it in here a bit,” the Red Bulls marksman explained, touching his chest. “I still want to feel that, you know, how they were celebrating. I like to keep that in my mind and use it as motivation.”
Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty was startlingly honest with the unusually large press contingent at Friday’s run through admitting that, “we were rattled.” It is a rare thing for an athlete to concede, but McCarty came clean.
“We haven’t seen too many times in the season, us get rattled like that,”, the fiery midfielder said, “and it certainly was a tough atmosphere.”
Calling Columbus, “a really tough place to play,” McCarty volunteered that to “give up a goal 10 seconds in it makes it even more difficult, so we were rattled throughout the whole game, very uncharacteristic of us.”
McCarty went on, “I think a lot of guys, myself included, had some of their worst games of the year, and when you couple all of that together with being in a tough place to play, it makes for a really tough environment and a really tough result that we have to overcome.”
McCarty and Wright-Phillips have been through this with the Red Bulls the past two seasons, but for Mike Grella this is a whole new experience. The Long Island, New York native came home after spending his entire career before this in Europe, revitalizing a career that had stalled as the tricky attacker wound his way through six teams in the English Championship and one in Norway.
Grella, the playoff novice, didn’t sound too concerned about that 2-0 deficit when he spoke to reporters at the Red Bulls Training Center in suburban New Jersey.
“I’m not too sure we’ll feel any pressure,” Grella said, “I think it’s quite the opposite.” The elusive attacker felt that the second leg versus DC was ” a tricky game.”
“This one,” Grella said, “it’s clear as day what we need to do.” “We need to really press the game, really shore up at the back, and we have to go for it from the first minute.”
Even now with the season in the balance, New Yorker Grella says of the playoff experience, “it has been great.” “I’ve enjoyed the entire season, I’ve enjoyed working with these guys every day, getting better, I think we’re continuing as a group, we’re getting better every single day in the way that we play and even everything that we do outside of the game, so it’s been a very enjoyable experience.”
Grella and company will be attempting to extend that experience on Sunday when they come into the second leg of the Conference Finals trailing the Columbus Crew 2-0.
An away goal by the Crew could bury the home team, but New York has been strong at home and led by Wright-Phillips, Grella, Lloyd Sam and Sacha Kljestan the Red Bulls are well capable of reeling Columbus back in.
FC Dallas hosts the Portland Timbers in Sunday’s MLS Playoff opener at 5:00 ET. Like New York, Dallas trail by two goals coming into the second leg after losing 3-1 in the first leg in Portland, although FCD did score one away goal.
The Timbers impressed in that first leg and were well worth that 3-1 margin, although if not for an added-time goal by Nat Borchers, Dallas would be in a much stronger position headed into the decisive second leg.
Again, like New York, Conference winners Dallas are on the ropes with a place in the MLS Cup at stake. Will the home field advantage be enough to turn the tide?
Sunday will tell.