The New York Red Bulls exorcised some playoff demons on Sunday, but for a team having to carry the burden of 23 years of postseason disappointments, their job as Ghostbusters has only just begun.
The Red Bulls played like the record-setting team they have been all season on Sunday, riding another stellar defensive performance and a pair of Daniel Royer goals to a comfortable 3-0 victory and 3-1 series triumph over the Columbus Crew, a team that had been a playoff pest for the Red Bulls in years past.
It was the Crew that pummeled the Red Bulls in the 2008 MLS Cup final, and the same Crew that shocked the Supporters' Shield-winning Red Bulls in 2015. A similar fate felt possible after the Red Bulls dropped a 1-0 decision in last week's conference semifinal first leg, but on Sunday the Red Bulls played like a team determined to write a new history, and not one destined to repeat past playoff horrors.
Defensively, the Red Bulls limited the Crew's opportunities, with a few late saves by Luis Robles the only real threats, and those came with the Red Bulls well ahead. Offensively, the Red Bulls found much more success creating chances than they did in the first leg, and the result was a three-goal victory.
"Today I couldn't pick out a bad player, I think everyone played well," Bradley Wright-Phillips said. "We learned from our mistakes last week. We looked dangerous on the attack, the defense was how they've been all season."
The Crew kept numbers around Wright-Phillips for much of the night, but his teammates helped pick up the scoring slack, led by Royer, who scored two goals to give the Red Bulls the series edge.
"We needed a hero and Danny stepped up today," Wright-Phillips said. "We just need people to chip in with goals, like they have been all season. I think it's been spread out quietly throughout the season. Today Danny comes up big. The next game we play a better team, no disrespect to Columbus, but the table doesn't lie. We'll play a better team and someone else will have to step up."
"We can't always just give (Wright-Phillips) the pressure of scoring goals so I think all of us are trying to help him out," Royer said. "He does an amazing job the entire season for many years, so it makes me happy and it makes the entire team happy that sometimes we can take the pressure off his shoulders."
Royer's second goal, a long-range blast past Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen, gave the Red Bulls a two-goal cushion, and allowed nervous Red Bulls fans to relax a bit, even if goalkeeper Luis Robles was still determined to not let his team relax, racing up the field during the post-goal celebration to remind his teammates their job wasn't done yet.
"I told the guys to stay focused and disciplined," Robles said. "We're going to shut them out. We're going to do everything it takes to get the shutout so that there's no question going into the end of the game how this is going to end up. It just continues to show what this group is capable of, and what we've building on each and every year."
The Red Bulls will now face Atlanta United, a team New York has never lost to, and a side they dominated in their last meeting, a 2-0 victory on September 30. Despite that series dominance, the Red Bulls aren't taking anything for granted, not against a team as dangerous as Atlanta United.
"It's kind of a clash of the titans," Red Bulls defender Aaron Long said of the Eastern Conference final. "We were both so high up in the table. It's definitely what the fans want to see. It's kind of what both teams want. I'm sure they want to see us again and get revenge, and we want to see the best so it's going to be a great series."