HARRISON, N.J. — Moral victories become tougher and tougher to enjoy, or even acknowledge, the more often real victories elude you.
That was certainly the feeling in the New York Red Bulls locker room after Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League semifinal elimination at the hands of Chivas Guadalajara. The emotional toll taken by the Red Bulls' latest big-game flop wasn't softened by the fact they had just outplayed Chivas, the traditional Mexican powerhouse that had just secured its seventh final in three years.
It mattered little that they had just achieved a new standard for the team, coming within a goal of a regional final. The only thing that mattered was the zero on their scoreboard, and the zero next to their total of championship trophies.
"A loss feels like a loss," striker Bradley Wright-Phillips said when asked if Tuesday's elimination felt different from past disappointments. Goalkeeper Luis Robles felt the same way.
"Trust me, they all hurt," Robles said. "It's hard to say one hurts more than the other."
It was understandable why the two longest-serving members of the Red Bulls would struggle to find a silver lining. They have both spent five years at the club, and have been on the wrong end of several playoff eliminations and big-game letdowns.
"Bradley sits next to me, and he's sat next to me since 2013, and tonight he just says, 'Hey, we've got to stop having this feeling, where we're sitting here trying to figure out how to get over the hump,'" Robles said.
"At the end of the day there's a hump there we can't seem to get over."
As easy as it was to feel like Tuesday's missed opportunity was a case of "same old Red Bulls," which followed the "same old Metros" of the club's early years, the way the Red Bulls played in this year's Champions League, and in the Chivas series, wasn't like those past disappointments.
"This one for me is very different," Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said on Tuesday. "In other games, I almost felt like our team was waiting to disappoint themselves, to give something away. And this team didn't give anything away, and they went after it.
"So, although it winds up being a loss on the scoreboard and the result doesn't go our way — and listen, I'm judged by results ultimately — but this team has something. There's something to this group.
"As disappointing as it is to be right on the doorstep of a big moment for the club, I'm so optimistic with this group."
Marsch has good reason to feel that way. The tournament showed a Red Bulls team with serious depth, and a wealth of young talent. The CCL run showed off a much-improved defense that limited Chivas to one goal over two legs — a strike that came courtesy of a midfield turnover.
The arrival of Tim Parker has given the Red Bulls a major boost, and suddenly they boast depth in central defense with Parker, Aaron Long and Aurelien Collin. The CCL run also allowed Marsch to spread out starts throughout his roster and that has helped several players emerge as viable contributors, such as Derrick Etienne Jr., Florian Valot and Vincent Bezecourt.
It is also a team that has yet to see the best of marquee signing Alejandro Romero "Kaku" Gamarra, who missed a chunk of the preseason after his acquisition was dragged out by external factors. Kaku wound up not playing much of a role in the team's CCL run, but will now have the opportunity to settle into the starting playmaker role he was signed to fill.
Kaku is also part of a core of players 25 and younger who have the potential to help the team evolve into an MLS powerhouse. That core — which includes Gamarra, Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Parker, Long, Kemar Lawrence, Michael Murillo and Etienne — along with veterans Robles and Wright-Phillips, has the qualities to be an MLS Cup contender. But first, they must shake off the disappointment of Tuesday's CCL elimination. They don't have much time to dwell. The MLS regular season resumes with a home game against the Montreal Impact on Saturday, which will give the team its first chance to work toward another big game.