The New York Red Bulls, so traditionally blessed with world class talent, will have to wait yet another year for its first championship. And they will have one more year to considering another opportunity squandered … more or less a club hallmark.
What looked like the high profile club’s best hope in years went all wrong Wednesday at Red Bull Arena, where the small budget, never-say-die Houston Dynamo did what it has always been so good at doing: managing the playoffs with a steely confidence and finding their way through against the odds.
The teams were level at 1-1 after 90 minutes Wednesday; the highly unlikely Dynamo’s series-winner came from Omar Cummings 14 minutes into extra time, as the visitors prevailed in the Eastern Conference semifinal total goals series, 4-3.
Houston will meet the Sporting Kansas City in the conference finals, with a trip to MLS Cup 2013 on the line. Houston has eliminated Sporting KC from the playoffs in the last two seasons, including the 2011 Eastern Conference finals.
New York’s Red Bull Arena, now four years old, has yet to host a playoff win. In fact, the Red Bulls have not won a playoff game at home (in any venue) since 2005.
Houston, the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed, was a big underdog in the series, with a total roster salary of roughly a third of the Red Bulls’ payroll.
Boniek Garcia, a Honduran international and Houston’s most creative attacker, started the sequence with a fabulous pass that put Kofi Sarkodie through on the right side. Cam Weaver headed Sarkodie’s cross back across the goal mouth, where Cummings was in position to poke home from close range. Luis Robles got over to the ball, but knocked it out just after it had crossed the line.
New York’s Brandon Barklage had slipped at the far post, allowing Weaver an unchallenged header.
The first half was all Red Bulls, but the moments that mattered were an exchange of blunders.
New York was certainly closer to scoring all along. Henry put Bradley Wright-Phillips through for the game’s first big chance, but his little shot in the 12th minute past Tally Hall lacked the pace and Corey Ashe was there to clean up before the ball could roll into goal.
Wright-Phillips was off target again in the 19th when Eric Brunner slipped, leaving the Englishman with a free header off David Carney’s cross. Then came the game’s first blunder.
Of all the reasons Houston cold have gone behind – something special from Thierry Henry, fatigue from 5th game in 14 days, etc. – what happened Wednesday was surely a toughie. Hall, who wasn’t at his best on the two goals conceded Sunday in Houston, fumbled a benign cross from the right side; Wright-Phillips cleaned it up easily for a 1-0 lead in the 23rd minute.
The blunder at the other end arrived off the right foot of Red Bulls center back Ibrahim Sekagya, who was laboring with an apparent hamstring issue. He won a ball near the top of the penalty area but made the jayvee mistake of playing a flat ball across his own goal. Davis picked off the pass and calmly slotted past Luis Robles.
It was Davis’ third playoff goal, but his first in the post-season since 2007 (which happens to be the last time Houston won MLS Cup).
Caution ruled much of the second half, with Houston clearly more interested in taking the game. What chances that were all came at the Red Bulls attacking end. Henry’s twisting header in the 65th caressed the crossbar. Eric Alexander came in to create some trouble. Henry very nearly won it a minute into stoppage time with an audacious overhead kick, which deflected out for a corner kick.
Houston wanted to play counter-attack soccer (the way New York did so well Sunday in Texas) but just isn’t as good at that game as the Red Bulls. So Robles was rarely bothered in the home team’s goal – not until the telling moment, that is.