– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
HARRISON, NJ — After officially flipping the script during the second leg of their Eastern Conference semifinals series, advancing one step closer to claiming a long-awaited postseason trophy, all that was left for the triumphant New York Red Bulls players to do were the celebratory backflips.
New York’s midfield put on a dominant performance, highlighted by the opening goal from midfield Alex Muyl and a second-half brace from fellow midfielder Daniel Royer as the Red Bulls overturned a 1-0 deficit against Columbus Crew SC from last week’s first leg with a 3-0 demolition in the return fixture on Sunday night, taking their spot in the Eastern Conference Championship alongside Atlanta United FC.
“What a thing of beauty if the guys can go out there and just play,” said New York Red Bulls manager Chris Armas after the victory. “And the way they got that second goal all of a sudden there’s these little back heels, there’s all this stuff going on and you sit back and you love it because now they’re playing free. And you can talk about that, but then you see it, we know that it’s in there, so we keep encouraging that.”
Watching their offensive verve click spectacularly on most nights, as well as their air-tight defense apply a boa-constrictor-like embrace on its opponents in almost every contest, it is no surprise the New York Red Bulls, 2018 Supporters’ Shield champions and, more specifically, the best team in Major League Soccer history in terms of regular-season record, performed the way it did tonight. However, given their snake-bitten history in the postseason – they are the only original MLS franchise never to have won an MLS Cup or U.S. Open Cup – and three previous defeats in the playoffs to Columbus, playing free, even inside the charged atmosphere of Red Bull Arena, would be tough to come by, especially if the first goal did not come early or, even worse, if the Crew bagged the away goal that might see them assume complete control in the series.
On 17 minutes, fears across the stadium were allayed, as a Sean Davis free kick into the box was headed down by Royer and into the path of defender Aaron Long, whose shot ricocheted off of Muyl and past Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen to give New York the lead in the game and even the tie on aggregate.
“I think I’ve said it before and we have said it around here with Alex; He is [fearless], we talk about being fearless, it helps if you put guys on the field that are fearless,” said Armas. “Their starting points are that. So he doesn’t back down from the moment and he’s up for it all the time.”
Muyl was part of a midfield, as well as wing backs Kemar Lawrence and Michael Murillo, that relentlessly attacked the flanks of the Crew’s defense all night, and their endeavor paid off in the series-deciding goal in the 73rd minute. Muyl, who received a pass from Bradley Wright-Phillips just above the top of the box, spotted a cutting Tyler Adams, who played a delicate first-time back-heel pass to an open Royer right on front of Steffen. Royer then made no mistake, poking a right-footed shot past Steffen to ignite Red Bull Arena once more and, more importantly, give the Red Bulls their first lead in the series.
Three minutes later, Royer delivered the coup de grâce, receiving an outlet pass from another midfielder, Kaku, before cutting to his right and firing a shot from 20 yards out that soared past Steffen in the middle of the goal to complete New York’s near-perfect night.
After Royer’s second, he broke out his signature cartwheel-into-a-backflip celebration, and was joined by Muyl and others in the acrobatic jubilation that immediately ensued. In a game where Wright-Phillips was used mostly as a decoy, his running mate up top, Royer, was able to take center stage when the goals needed to be there.
“We can’t just always give [Wright-Phillips] the pressure of scoring goals,” said Royer, who finished second on the team in goals in the regular season with 11, behind the 20 of Wright-Phillips. “All of us, we’re trying to help him out. It makes me happy and it makes the entire team happy that sometimes we can take the pressure off his shoulders.”
Columbus came into the game with the lead due to the influential play of midfielder Federico Higuaín, who came on as a substitute last Sunday and assisted on the only goal of the game, scored by Gyasi Zardes. Tonight, Higuaín got the start but barely made an impact, including only touching the ball 15 times total in the first half.
“[New York] played an excellent game. We weren’t at our best tonight and when you’re not at your best it’s very difficult to win,” said Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter. “I thought that we hung in there. The second half picked up a little bit, but overall not enough on the night.”
Berhalter also revealed in the post-match press conference that Zardes had suffered a separated shoulder in training on Wednesday and was a massive doubt going into tonight’s game. Zardes did start and was fairly effective, producing a shot on goal late in the second half that was saved acrobatically by Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.
The Crew played the entire season amidst clouds of uncertainty, from the rumors of the potential sale and relocation of the club to Austin, Texas that surrounded the team until a partnership that includse a Columbus-based investor and the owner of the Cleveland Browns announced its intention to buy the team and keep it in Columbus last month, to the status of Berhalter, who is considered the frontrunner to become the next coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“I think the players did an outstanding job,” said Berhalter. “It’s obviously there and we’re obviously dealing with something, but again, to us it became about more than that and blocking out distractions and I think the important thing about this group…I can’t measure the effect it had but what I would say is that the guys stayed focused, didn’t make excuses for themselves and wanted to get better and that’s all you can ask from them.”
Tonight’s result now sets up a tantalizing two-legged tie between the teams that both attempted to chase down the previous MLS record for points in a season (69), as the Red Bulls, who did end up earning a league-record 71 points and nipped Atlanta for the Supporters’ Shield by two points after New York’s win and Atlanta’s defeat on Decision Day, will play inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Sunday Nov. 25 in the first leg. The teams will then head to New Jersey four days later for the return leg, and the winner will get the opportunity to host the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 8.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Sunday evening’s game, with all photos taken by A Lot of Sports Talk senior photographer Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 48 pictures in total.