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Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

October 31, 2016
Red Bulls, NYC FC face different, difficult challenges in conference semifinal 2nd leg

Some New York City FC players were not happy with some of Patrick Vieira's moves Sunday.
Some New York City FC players were not happy with some of Patrick Vieira's moves Sunday.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
By Michael Lewis Editor

Regardless what you might have called the results -- Black Sunday, Sunday, Bloody, Sunday or just Woe in Canada -- this much is certain for the Red Bulls and New York City FC:

Their collective backs will be against the wall when they host the second leg of their respective MLS Eastern Conference semifinal series Sunday.

On paper, the Red Bulls have it "easier," because they trail by only one goal after tasting defeat for the first time since a 2-0 loss to New York City FC July 3. The Red Bulls, who dropped a 1-0 result at the Montreal Impact Sunday, will host their neighbors from the north at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. at 4 p.m. Nov. 6.

City, making its first playoff appearance after a forgettable 2015 maiden season, needs to overcome a two-goal deficit (a 2-0 loss) after surrendering an ill-advised goal in stoppage time to Toronto FC. The Blues will welcome the Canadian club to Yankee Stadium for a 6:30 p.m. Sunday match-up.

NYC FC finds itself with a much more challenging road against a team that has rediscovered its mojo. As well as the team has performed at home in recent months, starting in a two-goal hole is not exactly the most ideal situation. That is multiplied when you consider Toronto's list of talented veterans, including the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, among others.

The Blues' situation could become more complicated if what I heard is true.

According to a local soccer source, several City players left BMO Field Sunday night none too happy with head coach Patrick Vieira on what transpired in the game. Some players, the source said, were "livid." As many as nine players met Monday -- a day off from training -- to discuss "team matters."

It was not known exactly what players met and subjects were broached, although it would not be surprising it would be about Vieira switching from his usual tactics, a source said.

Vieira has espoused the forever-on-attack strategy and it worked damn well for 34 games and paid handsomely with a second-place finish in the East. On Sunday, he went more defensive and City paid for it dearly as the team finds its 2-0 behind the playoff eight ball.

Now, players meeting on their own during playoffs isn't exactly a Major League Soccer tradition.

Who knows how any player reaction will affect the team as it prepares for Sunday's confrontation? Player meetings have been known to pull teams together, others have pushed them apart.

Only time will tell how this affects the Blues or gives them the Blues.

One thing is certain: Vieira has made some unusual decisions as of late.

* The goalkeeper situation. Keeper (Eirik Johansen) who had exactly one game of MLS experience this season over someone (Josh Saunders) who played in the previous 33 matches before the season finale and who had MLS Cup playoff experience. Saunders, in fact, played in one MLS Cup final (he came on for an injured Donovan Ricketts in 2009) and backstopped the LA Galaxy in another to a title (2012).

* Pulling captain and striker David Villa during a scoreless tie Sunday. Villa might not have necessarily played up to his potential and expectations, but you know that adage about strikers: they can be invisible for 89 minutes and burn you in the 90th for the game-winner. Villa did not see the 89th or 90th minute. He was replaced by Khiry Shelton in the 78th minute. Fresher legs? No doubt. More guile during crunch time? I'll take a World Cup champion who has found the way to pull things off at the highest levels of soccer any day of the week.

Unless you have been living under a rock or in a cave, Villa finished second in the Golden Boot race to the Red Bulls' Bradley Wright-Phillips (24 to 23) and has been the heart and soul of the team.

The Red Bulls have their own challenges and issues.

Through the first two decades of MLS, Red Bulls fans have been teased by stars, superstars, enjoyable and fabulous regular seasons and most recently, two Supporters Shields. New York also has been disappointing in the playoffs on countless occasions, failing to grab the brass ring (aka the MLS Cup).

In two of their three previous seasons, the Red Bulls demonstrated their superiority in the marathon called the regular season by accruing the most points. But they failed to reach MLS championship game, falling by the wayside in the conference semifinals in 2013 and the Eastern final in 2015.

This year they brought in a ridiculous unbeaten streak into the post-season (16 in the league, 20 overall, if you count the CONCACAF Champions League). Both came to a crashing halt in Montreal Sunday.

Now the Red Bulls must start a new one to keep their championship hopes alive and not disappoint a fan base that has endured the more angst than any of the original 10 franchises.

The Red Bulls will enter Sunday's match with a 27-5-4 mark at RBA during head coach Jesse Marsch's two-year tenure. Not too shabby. But all of that will be just numbers and go for naught if the Red Bulls fail to advance as the team will chalk up yet another promising, yet flawed season.

Records and numbers are great and all that, but championships are so much better.
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