Despite pushing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, FC Cincinnati, to the limit in Game 2 of their best-of-three first-round postseason matchup, the New York Red Bulls bowed out of the MLS Playoffs on Saturday night at Red Bull Arena, falling in penalties (8-7) on the heels of a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes.
Following a 3-0 Game 1 loss in Cincinnati on Oct. 29, Tom Barlow put the underdog Red Bulls in the 45th minute to provide an immeasurable lift just before the break. But a free-kick inside the Cincinnati half from New York defender Andres Reyes saw the ball deflected within the first 10 yards, sparking a Cincinnati break that ended in Aaron Boupendza drawing the visitors level in the 75th minute to force the penalty shootout.
With a save in the third round of penalties by Carlos Coronel, the Red Bulls had a chance to win it in the fifth round, but star defender John Tolkin missed. In the ninth round, Coronel saved a shot by Yerson Mosquera but New York’s Serge Ngoma skied his chance over the bar.
After Santiago Arias scored for Cincinnati, another Reyes mistake — he made two costly blunders in Match 1, too — ended the Red Bulls’ season when his penalty was saved.
“It’s tough, especially at home,” Barlow said. “I feel like we’ve been playing well here and had that 1-0 lead and felt like we kind of gave up a cheap goal. And then in penalties, we had an opportunity to put it away, and we didn’t, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes. I’m proud of the boys for continuing to fight all year long and getting into the playoffs. We’ve made some really big steps. It was a tough game tonight, but I’m proud of the team.”
The disappointment of elimination was paired with moments of reflection for a team that was bottom of the table in May after winning just one of its first 11 matches. It prompted the removal of head coach Gerhard Struber and the promotion of Troy Lesesne from assistant.
Following the switch on May 8, the Red Bulls recorded at least one point in 14 of their final 23 games of the MLS regular season, including four wins in their final five matches to sneak into the playoffs. They proceeded to thump Charlotte FC in the Wild Card match to get into the first round against Cincinnati.
“This group had a choice. They had a choice to make on May 8 when our situation was the worst in the league,” Lesesne said. “We were bottom of the table and the players had a choice to make. We can stay in that position, or we can fight every single step of the way from May 8 until where we are today… There is no quit in this group. And that’s something that you have to respect.
“And I don’t think that we get the respect that we deserve all the time. Some of it’s our own doing. We need to fight for more respect. But when it comes to that type of mentality, I told the players the last thing and that statement was that this is something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives and it’s an important learning lesson in their careers. So, they can always stay true to that. And if you default to that type of mentality, you’re going to be all right. “