November 7, 2016
Red Bulls need a big-time DP to make some big plays in the playoffs
This is the first of a series of columns about the three New York teams in the playoffs -- the Red Bulls, New York City FC and the Cosmos
Bradley Wright-Phillips is a Designated Player for the Red Bulls, but the team needs someone with experience to help out during crunch time in the postseason.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
By Michael Lewis
The Red Bulls were eliminated from the MLS Cup playoffs Sunday.
And the sun also rises.
Yep, once again -- for the 17th time over 21 seasons as a playoff team -- the Red Bulls will fail to win MLS Cup (the Red Bulls reached the 2008 final as a Cinderella team via a miracle run with an 11th-hour rookie replacement in goal, Danny Cepero, after regular keeper Jon Conway and center back Jeff Parke were suspended for using illegal substances).
This time the end came in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a 3-1 aggregate goal loss to the Montreal Impact, which put the finishing touches in a 2-1 result at Red Bull Arena Sunday.
This result after an incredible finish to the regular season in which New York recorded two unbeaten streak -- 16 in the league and 20 overall.
Which should make this year's elimination confounding.
Well, yes and no. During Sunday's encounter, ESPN put up a graphic about the teams that brought long unbeaten streak into the playoffs. None won an MLS Cup.
Unbeaten streaks are tricky. Wins are great. Draws? Well, you avoid a dreaded loss and pick up one point. But when it comes to soccer mathematics, teams do not split the points. Each side gets one and another just fritters away into thin air.
The good, the bad and ugly of draws is the subject for another story, but too many deadlocks can make an unbeaten streak look bloated.
Some of those Red Bulls draws came from giving away leads, notably the two-goal variety.
The irony of the playoffs, a very, very, very short season, was that the Red Bulls never had a lead to give away. They suffered a 1-0 loss in Montreal and were forced to chase the game in the second leg, something they were not accustomed on doing in the latter stages of the season, since July.
During the past four regular seasons, the Red Bulls have acquitted themselves well. They won the Supporters Shield in 2013 and came within a goal of reaching the 2014 MLS Cup. Under head coach Jesse Marsch, they captured yet another Shield in 2015 and won the Eastern Conference crown this year.
Not too shabby, but not enough in this playoff-driven world.
The latest elimination should force sporting director Ali Curtis, Marsch and the rest of the technical staff to figure out how to upgrade the roster, determining the future of the foreign players who were brought on.
Gonzalo Veron, who looked so dangerous in preseason before an injury, took a long time before he acclimated himself with the team again; there are many rumors that his days are numbered. Mid-season acquisitions Daniel Royer and Omer Damari hardly made a difference, given their injuries. Are they worth to keep for 2017?
And then there's the question of signing a big-name Designated Player, someone who can make an impact, no pun intended in the wake of Sunday's ouster, when the game matters the most.
Now, the Red Bulls don't have to duplicate New York City's geriatric trio of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, but an experienced hand who has been around the block with his foot and head would be a vital addition to the squad next year.
Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan have done their jobs and played their roles exceptionally well as striker and playmaker. But as ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman noted Sunday, the Red Bulls need at least one other player who is a difference maker.
Only time will tell what decisions the Red Bulls' brass will make.
As for the players who actually performed, there was Kljestan's PK miss, which was another reminder of how close some of these post-season encounter can be (NYC FC's 5-0 embarrassment of a performance excepted). A botched PK here, a red card there, a hand ball here, a blunder there can turn the game and a team's brilliant season on its head.
In the regular season, all those headaches can result in a loss. While a defeat is bad enough, there usually is another day and game to accrue three points and move ahead.
In the playoffs, you make a mistake and there is no tomorrow, as the Red Bulls rudely discovered Sunday.
The sun rose as expected Monday morning, although Marsch, Curtis and the rest of the organization were forced to start making plans for 2017 about a month earlier than expected.