The New York Red Bulls did just enough to keep North American pro sports’ longest postseason streak alive at 14 consecutive years, pulling out a last-gasp winner on Saturday night in Nashville to catapult into the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.
But the reward is just one more confirmed game — a single-elimination Wild Card match on Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena against a Charlotte FC team that they drew twice this season.
Both teams had to turn it on at the very end of the regular season just to sneak in. The Red Bulls won four of their last five matches, outscoring their opponents 11-5, while Charlotte won three of its last four — all three of those victories including clean sheets for a club that allowed the fourth-most goals in the Eastern Conference.
“If you just took [the last] seven or eight matches [of the season], I think we would be towards the top of our conference and Charlotte would be right there as well,” Red Bulls manager Troy Lesesne said. “And that’s what it took for both teams to get into this position.”
Charlotte’s recent run of defensive form provides the largest challenge for a Red Bulls squad that has struggled to consistently find goals without their leading scorer last season, Lewis Morgan, who was sidelined this season due to a nagging hip injury.
While the 11 goals scored in their last five matches was the most New York scored across a five-match span this season, they ranked third-worst in the Eastern Conference this season with 36 goals. Their 1-0 victory on Decision Day over Nashville came in the fourth minute on stoppage time via the penalty spot.
“We want to continue to try to be more dynamic, more creative with the ball and transition to create opportunities,” Lesesne said. “We need to get back to what we’ve been doing the last few weeks in terms of chance creation, and just our idea with the ball. For Charlotte, I would say for playoff matches you can kind of push things to the side. Of course, there’s trends and there’s things that both teams will look at in terms of the statistics but I would just say it’s a completely different ballgame now in a playoff match.”
Sometimes, though, timing is everything. For a Red Bulls team that had to scrape and claw its way into the playoffs, being hot at the right time could provide the launchpad for a surprising postseason run. The winner of Wednesday’s Wild Card match will face the East’s top seed in FC Cincinnati in a best-of-three first-round matchup.
“I hope that’s the case,” Lesesne said. “And I would say that whoever wins this match between the two of us, it’d be a really, really difficult opponent for Cincinnati. Whoever progresses because both teams are in really good form right now. And we had to fight.
“That feeling of having to fight for something and make it into the playoffs builds a lot of resiliency and a lot of toughness, and that’s what you need to get into the playoffs and then make a run in the playoffs. So I think there’s absolutely something to that and hopefully, it works more in our favor than in Charlotte’s tomorrow night.”