WASHINGTON—After 18 years of disappointment and heartbreak, the New York Red Bulls have turned the past calendar year - and especially the playoffs - into the ‘Exorcising Demons Tour’.
What started a year ago with the club’s first major trophy - the 2013 Supporters’ Shield - has now kicked into full gear a year later with a Red Bulls team rewriting the club’s history books and helping build belief within a fan base that had grown all too familiar with heartache.
By eliminating No. 1 seed D.C. United from the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Red Bulls ended years of playoff domination by their arch rivals. Four previous times D.C. United ended the season of the club formerly known as the MetroStars, making this year’s playoff series feel like an inevitable loss for the Red Bulls, who hadn’t advanced past the conference semifinals since 2008, and had only done so twice in 18 previous seasons.
The 2014 Red Bulls repaid the faith of the more than 1,000 fans who made the trip south even with that painful history, holding their own at RFK Stadium, a venue where the club has endured a myriad of meltdowns, both in the playoffs and regular seasons.
The Red Bulls didn’t play a beautiful game Saturday, and after 45 minutes it looked like Red Bull fans were in for another disappointing ending as D.C. surged to within a goal of a comeback at halftime. The normally reliable Thierry Henry looked off in that first half, as did several teammates. D.C. piled on the pressure before the break, scoring a goal that sparked the sold-out crowd at RFK Stadium.
This is the moment when past editions of the club would have collapsed, but not the 2014 Red Bulls. They came out in the second half and played to win, rather than playing not to lose.
"It was a gutsy, gutsy performance,” Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke said. “This was perhaps a game and a series that in years past we would have lost. These guys showed determination. We have guys with a bloody lip getting stitches. We’ve got a guy with a lump on his head. These guys gave it their all. I’m extremely proud of them and they earned the right to be in the conference finals.”
The match turned on yet another special moment from Henry, who stepped up his play in the second half and created his fourth goal of the playoffs by flashing a burst of speed and delivering a pinpoint pass for Peguy Luyindula to finish.
That goal took the air out of D.C. United, and left the home team needing three goals to win the series. It also energized the Red Bulls, giving them a comfort level that made closing out the series easy for a team playing with a poise and confidence not often associated with the club.
“It was a release. I’ll be honest with you, this was one of the toughest days, if not the toughest day that I’ve had in my time as a head coach,” said a relieved Petke after the match. “It was just these weird feelings today. I know my guys were up for it. I know we’re a better team on paper than D.C., but D.C. obviously earned the right to be the number one seed in the East because of what they did throughout the season. It was a huge release when we scored. Huge.”
“It creeped in my head as soon as we won to realize that this was the first time that we ever beat them in the history in a playoff series,” Petke said. “That’s a great accomplishment. It’s another ghost to put back in the closet.”
The Red Bulls have enjoyed several firsts in the past year: that first piece of silverware, their first home playoff win and now beating D.C. United in the playoffs for the first time.
Next could be a chance to exorcise yet another demon. The New England Revolution are heavily favored to advance past the Columbus Crew in the other East semifinal, and if the Revs do advance, they’ll be facing a club to which they have never lost in the postseason. The teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 2007 (the Revs eliminated the MetroStars/Red Bulls in 2003, 2005 and 2007), but those were some of the most brutal defeats in the team’s history.
The Revs have already fallen victim to the Red Bulls’ recent penchant for rewriting their record books earlier this season, when New York posted its first road win against New England in almost 12 years. Petke took a short-handed team up to Gillette Stadium in a match few thought they could win, and posted a 2-0 victory on June 8.
They will likely be facing a very different Revs team. One on the hottest run in the league, sporting a 10-1-1 record in its past 12, including last week’s 4-2 first-leg victory in Columbus. Assuming the Revs avoid second-leg meltdown at home on Sunday, they will be up next for a determined Red Bulls team gaining confidence by the week.
The Red Bulls weren’t about to look ahead to a New England series after eliminating D.C. United. For one, they didn’t want to count out Columbus, but just as importantly they wanted to stay focused on the ultimate goal, winning the club’s first MLS Cup title.
“This one goes to the fans because I’m sure they had enough of losing against D.C.,” Henry said. “On a personal point of view, and I’m sure the same with (the fans), we haven’t done anything yet. You want to go all the way.
“It will go down in history that it was the first time we beat D.C. in the playoffs, but that’s it. You have to go forward and try to concentrate, stay committed on what’s coming next.”
Petke did admit that the ride home from the nation’s capital would feel sweeter than usual, a ride that for so many years was a painful one.
“To be honest with you, yes. I’ll let my guard down a little bit, it’s going to be a huge breath that we’re going to take to exhale and relax on the train,” Petke said. “We’re starting to get ready for whoever we play in two weeks, but this is a good thing to put behind us and we’re looking ahead.”