HARRISON, N.J. -- A season that began on the brink ended one game short of MLS Cup with the New York Red Bulls ousted from the Eastern Conference Finals, winning the second leg 1-0 over the Columbus Crew but losing on aggregate on Sunday night.
For a few brief moments it seemed like a season that continually defied expectations was set to continue on. Second half substitute Anatole Abang scored in second half stoppage time and then Bradley Wright-Phillips, the team's leading scorer, hit an effort off the post that would have put the playoff series into overtime. A season that started with zero expectations now over, a game short of MLS Cup.
The year began with the team in upheaval. A popular head coach in Mike Petke was fired in a big move by newly appointed sporting director Ali Curtis after an offseason that had seen the best player in franchise history, Thierry Henry, retire and stars such as Tim Cahill and Jamison Olave jettisoned. Playoff expectations were nil at the start of the year and yet this team methodically climbed the ladder. Eventually, they would be the first team to qualify for the playoffs, won the Eastern Conference and would lift the Supporters Shield for best record in the league.
But now, one game short of hosting MLS Cup, the Red Bulls are out of the playoffs. A season that wasn't even supposed to get to this point now over.
"Well, offseasons are never easy. This team will never be together as it exists now. And it is hard to know that because I love this team. I love how all the players have committed themselves to the mission of what we've tried to accomplish," head coach Jesse Marsch said.
"And now it is important for each guy to think about – I have asked these guys at such a high level to think about the team first. And when the offseason comes, it is time for players to think about their own personal situations. There's a lot of delicate situations with different players. We have to try to figure out how to keep the nucleus and most of this team together. Re-tool it and get ready to give these guys a little bit of a break and then ramp it all up again for next year. It's a very daunting task at this time."
The Red Bulls held the majority of possession in the second leg but it was Columbus, cruelly denied three times in the first half by Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, who had the better chances. In fact, the Supporters Shield holders had just one shot in the first half and their first touch in the Crew penalty box came in the 33rd minute.
It was a playoff series where the Red Bulls didn't look like the league's top team, bogged down by strong defense from Columbus who also moved the ball quickly on their counterattack.
"I'd rather lose on this team than win on Columbus," midfielder Sacha Kljestan said in the locker room after the match.
Marsch called it a "magical season" - a season that no one, not even the most optimistic of Red Bulls fans, saw coming. But when Abang scored in second half stoppage time and then Wright-Phillips hit the post and seemed set to level the series, for a moment, it seemed like the magic was still there.
"It was an inch, two inches, I don't know, you tell me," Marsch said. "How far away was it from being something more special?"