A familiar feeling hangs over the Red Bulls following their 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The past four seasons have ended in the same way. A loss in the first leg followed by a result that sees the Red Bulls fall just short of advancing to the next round. There’s no one single reason why, it just seemingly always happens.
Red Bulls must rewrite history to advance past Crew
But this Sunday, the 2018 Red Bulls have a shot to rewrite history. The MetroStars/New York Red Bulls in their 23 years of existence, have never won a playoff series after losing the first leg. In a season with more highs than lows, next Sunday will provide the biggest test ever for this group, or club for that matter. A bigger test than losing your coach midseason, beating Atlanta without your stars, or winning a CCL match in Mexico. How can this 2018 team handle adversity over previous Red Bull teams?
What really separates good teams from the great one’s isn’t necessarily an ability to knock off other strong teams, but to handle weaker opposition consistently. The Crew were the second worst offensive team in the league, entering the playoffs with a -2 goal differential. Yet after 120 minutes in a thrilling penalty shootout just two days before, the Crew took their chance when it came and made the Red Bulls pay. Their win over DC seemingly galvanized the Crew as they don’t look like a team that nearly missed playoffs on Decision Day.
An annual talking point around MLS come playoff time is whether 3-6 seeds have an advantage over the top two seeds because of the unmeasurable aspect of momentum. While the numbers neither prove or deny that narrative, it’s certainly true that a defining moment in the face adversity can bring a team back to life.
Maybe it’s looking at the glass half full, rather than half empty, but losing the first leg could be exactly what the Red Bulls need. A chance to face a challenge early in the playoffs against a team that in all measures of statistics, the Red Bulls are better than. It’s better to face adversity now than mid-game against Atlanta/NYC or even worse MLS Cup final. Excluding the outlier that was RBNY in 2008, the Red Bulls have never had a “defining moment” in the playoffs. Overcoming this obstacle could ignite the MLS Cup run all fans are yearning for.
That moment is now there and the team’s ability or inability to seize it will ultimately define their legacy after all is said and done in 2018.