Despite some late-game thrills in both Conference Final deciders, two goals proved to be too much to overcome for the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, setting up an MLS Cup Final next Sunday between the Columbus Crew and the Portland Timbers at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
On a wet, cold and miserable afternoon in Frisco, Texas Dallas officials failed miserably at the basic task of getting fans into the stadium in a timely manner, leaving a sizeable number of the sellout (plus) crowd of 20,966 stewing outside Toyota Stadium until half the match had been played.
Safety concerns are on everyone’s mind these days and heightened security measures will inevitably slow things down at any major event, but in Sunday’s late game MLS and the Red Bulls took steps to address the issue, including pushing the start time back 30 minutes, and the situation was much improved.
MLS and Dallas officials will have to deal with the fallout and even if most of the match action took place in the final 45, that is scant consolation to the stranded fans.
Portland’s two-goal advantage remained intact throughout that opening stanza, and when striker Fanendo Adi buried a chance in the 54th minute it was easy to surmise that the Timbers striker had also thrown six feet of dirt on Dallas’ MLS Cup hopes.
14 minutes later Ryan Hollingshead got one back for FC Dallas making the aggregate score 4-2 to Portland, but the tally had the feel of a consolation goal.
Five minutes later Dallas substitute Blas Perez got his head to a Mauro Diaz cross in a crowded Portland goalmouth and suddenly it was game on.
Dallas was now back in the game and came within a whisker of tying the match when Panamanian poacher Perez sent a blast goalward only to find his effort blocked by Portland defender Nat Borchers, who seemed to materialize out of the Dallas rain to make the goal-saving play.
That would be FCD’s final flourish before Timbers sub-Lucas Melano sealed the deal with an added time goal, dancing along the end line and around Dallas talented young keeper Jesse Gonzalez sparking a celebration by visiting Portland, who have qualified for the MLS Cup for the first time in its five-year history.
That same scene would play out a few hours later in Harrison, New Jersey when the visitors from Columbus would raise the Eastern Conference Trophy at a virtually empty Red Bull Arena, having survived a furious late New york rally by the width of a goalpost.
First-year Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch would say later that the sight of Bradley Wright-Phillips’ header rolling slowly into and off of the upright was “painfully unbelievable,” and who could argue.
But the Supporters Shield winners had put themselves in this predicament with a 2-0 loss in the first game that featured a goal nine seconds in and another with the clock winding down.
A late, very late, goal from substitute Anatole Abang gave the Red Bulls hope, although coming as it did three minutes deep in added time that hope seemed likely to be false hope.
Then the unthinkable nearly happened when BWP sent his header goalward. With every eye in the stadium watching intently, the ball seemed to be traveling in slow motion before it finally bounced harmlessly away.
Extra time had been averted, so too had the prospect of thousands of fans trying to talk their way back into the Arena after having headed for the exits convinced the season was over.
In truth, it was justice that Wright-Phillips’ shot caromed out and not in because Columbus were by far the better team.
New York captain Dax McCarty summed it up nicely after the game and via twitter.
Dax McCarty @DaxMcCarty11 15h15 hours ago
Congrats to Columbus outplayed us and deserve to advance. To our fans, can only say sorry. We failed in the biggest moment, simple as that.
Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter won his battle with MLS Coach of the Year Jesse Marsch over 180 minutes, negating the Red Bulls high press and telling the media after Sunday’s big win, “you saw how we played, it wasn’t a typical performance by us.” Berhalter explained, “we identified their strengths and we wanted to turn that against them.”
The former U.S. MNT defender added that he was proud that his team could play more than one way. GotSoccer asked Red Bull captain McCarty about that on Monday’s post mortems at Red Bull Arena and the captain pulled no punches. “I absolutely agree with that,” McCarty said forcefully.
“I think that there is something to that. I think that we had such a great system all year and it was so effective the entire season that was basically the main way we were going to play and win games.” Did we need a Plan B,” the captain mused before answering his own question, “probably.”
McCarty stated that he believed in the Red Bulls system, but concluded that “as soon as we saw Columbus make their adjustment and figure out how they were going to play a little bit differently maybe we should have adjusted too.”
Columbus weren’t the only team to trouble New York’s press this season, although they did in the biggest game. McCarty told GotSoccer, “we should have learned throughout the whole season that when teams sit back on us and are compact in the midfield and make it difficult for us to play through teams and sit back and counter attack us it’s effective.”
“That’s something that we didn’t deal well with,” McCarty said. “I think when teams were very tight and compact and sitting deep on us we weren’t dynamic enough in attack to create chances and score goals.”
The captain’s analysis hit the nail on the head concerning the two game loss to the Crew, but McCarty, whose 2016 option was picked up by the club on Monday, sounds anxious to get back to work.
“That’s something that we have to work on, we have to work on that for next year.”
But McCarty and the Red Bulls work is done for 2016. Columbus and Portland take center stage now with next Sunday the biggest day on the MLS calendar.
With Sunday’s win in the books and a place in the MLS Cup secured Crew captain Michael Parkhurst agreed when GotSoccer asked if this was a chance for Columbus to step out of the shadow of some of the MLS glamor clubs. “Yeah I hope so,” Parkhurst said. “You know, being in Columbus we’re not on national television a lot,” the former U.S. MNT defender added. “So,” Parkhurst continued, “we don’t get the big games, so people maybe haven’t seen us play.”
“But,” Parkhurst continued, “I think everyone in the league, all the players, some of the coaches, I think that we’ve gained their respect in how we play.”
Not that impressing outsiders is first and foremost on the Crew captains mind. “Most importantly,” Parkhurst told GotSoccer Sunday night, “everyone in this locker room believes in what we do, sticking together and it’s taken us this far.”
Can it take Columbus all the way? Portland will have something to say about that next Sunday, December 6, at 4pm ET.