The New York Red Bulls' elimination from the 2013 MLS playoffs will be seen as the latest chapter in team's cursed history, but that ignores Houston's key role in their demise.
It wasn’t really that mystical a development, and far easier to explain than some jinx hoodoo.
Houston’s elimination of the Supporters' Shield-winning Red Bulls was less about a jinxed team and much more about an experienced and battle-tested playoff team coming together and finding a way to win in the playoffs yet again. It was about the Red Bulls opening the door for the Dynamo to work their playoff magic, and the Dynamo taking full advantage to move one step closer to a potential third straight MLS Cup Final.
Consider where the Dynamo were just three days ago. Trailing 2-0 at home to the Red Bulls, the same team that had beaten them at BBVA Compass Stadium by a combined 7-2 scoreline in two recent visits to Houston, the Dynamo looked like a team that just didn’t have an answer for the high-profile Red Bulls.
Rather than fold, the Dynamo rallied, pulling back a goal before Jamison Olave’s dumb, red-card worthy challenge left the Red Bulls down a man on the way to an eventual 2-2 draw.
With their lead gone, and best defender in street clothes, the Red Bulls came into Wednesday’s second leg in a vulnerable state against a Houston team that has made a habit of beating higher-seeded opponents in recent years.
The Dynamo showed resiliency yet again on Wednesday, with Tally Hall overcoming a horrendous first-half blunder to turn in a Man of the Match-worthy performance. The Red Bulls did their part, gifting the Dynamo its first goal of the night on a horrendous Ibrahim Sekagya pass that Brad Davis turned into an equalizer.
“They have experience in the playoffs. They don’t panic and they know how to win these kind of games,” Thierry Henry told Goal USA. “After the first leg we felt we could come home and take care of it, but you must give them credit for being able to win a game like this. It is not a coincidence that they have played in the final the last two years”
“We didn’t finish,” Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke said as he rattled off the reasons for Wednesday’s loss (none of which involved a curse or jinx). “I think we were bit off in our crossing and our passing. I think we were a bit too urgent for most of the night instead of calming the match down.
“At the end of the day, they did what they had to do to come in here and get a result and hat’s off to them.”
There will be no final for Henry, Petke and the Red Bulls, which makes Wednesday’s loss a bittersweet ending to what had been a dream season for a club that won its first major piece of silverware just two weeks ago in the form of the MLS Supporters Shield.
If the Red Bulls want to take anything from Wednesday’s loss, it should be having a look at the history of their opponent. Dynamo head coach Dom Kinnear has faced his share of disappointments similar to the one faced by Petke on Wednesday, and it has given him a no-nonsense, no excuse-making approach to handling the playoffs.
“The playoffs are different. Once you get in anything can happen,” Kinnear told Goal USA. “I’ll go back to 2005. We (the San Jose Earthquakes) were the best team in the league by a mile and we played LA in the last game of the regular season and absolutely crushed them. Then they knocked us out in the first round of the playoffs.
“It’s about who is playing well on the day.”
Few coaches have helped their teams play better on the day in the playoffs than Kinnear, who took that 2005 Earthquakes team and led it to back-to-back MLS Cup titles after the team moved to Houston and rebranded as the Dynamo.
That same Dynamo team looked poised for a three-peat in 2008, when an overachieving New York Red Bulls squad pulled off one of the most shocking upsets in MLS playoff history. An upset that had many similarities to the upset Houston pulled on Wednesday, only with the roles reversed.
Kinnear recalled that 2008 series loss, and how, much like the 2013 series, it started with a 1-1 draw and the favorites heading home feeling good about winning. That year, Kinnear’s Dynamo lost a humbling 3-0 decision at home, with Jamaican winger Dane Richards tearing the Dynamo to shreds. Five years later, it was the Dynamo eliminating the No. 1 seed, with Omar Cummings playing the role of series-winning Jamaican attacker.
“That’s probably the worst I’ve ever felt after a soccer game,” Kinnear admitted to Goal USA when he thought about that 2008 loss. “We’ve had a lot of good ones since then so they’ve helped the pain go away.”
The pain isn’t going to go away for Petke and the Red Bulls for a long time. Not because Wednesday’s loss, rife with unforced blunders and missed opportunities, felt all too familiar. But because this year felt different, and Petke and Red Bulls fans really started buying into the idea that this could be the season that the team’s 18 years of painful history would be wiped clean.
“I guess you can’t exorcise every demon in one year,” Petke said after the match. “We exorcised one of them, but hats off to Houston. They’re a playoff team. They proved that.”
Petke tried to remind everybody on Wednesday night that their loss to Houston didn’t suddenly make the Red Bulls season a failure, not with a Supporters Shield added to the team’s trophy case.
“At the end of the day I think it’s smart that they have a Supporters Shield champion, and then they have an MLS Cup champion,” Petke said. “It’s two separate things. Both equally as important, but one’s over a nine-month season, and the other is over five weeks so, it is what it is.”
Petke was right to remind people of the season the Red Bulls had, but there is no championship heading to the Red Bulls trophy case this off-season. The Supporters Shield, in a league that doesn’t play a balanced schedule, simply can’t be considered a championship, and suggesting the shield and MLS Cup are truly comparable just isn’t reality.
American sports are about champions delivering in the playoffs. Regular season leaders are forgotten soon after they are eliminated in the postseason. In MLS, only the winners and fans of winners of Supporters Shield remember that prize. MLS Cup champions are remembered by everybody in the league. Nobody will ever talk about the 2004 Columbus Crew or 2007 D.C. United as special teams because they won the Supporters' Shield, but even teams like the 2005 LA Galaxy and 2010 Colorado Rapids will always be remembered for having everything fall together on their way to MLS Cup title even though their regular seasons were largely forgettable.
Teams, players and coaches are remembered for what they do in the playoffs, when all the pressure is on, and for yet another season, the Red Bulls came up short while the Dynamo found a way to win. That isn’t about a jinx or curse, or luck, but about one team knowing how to win, and one team still trying to figure out how to win when everything is on the line.