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NY finds ways to lose under pressure

ROTTEN APPLE
New York's playoff misery continued late Wednesday night.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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HARRISON, N.J.

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If you believe in soccer karma, or even luck, the New York Red Bulls are due a lot of it. They’ve always tried hard, done things the right way. They’ve spent the money and gone all out every single year. They’ve aspired and helped elevate Major League Soccer to a higher plane with its investment in infrastructure and talent and big-time coaches. And they’ve gotten such a raw deal in return.

Time and again, they found ways to lose the key games, especially when they’d seemed all but won. It took the Red Bulls 18 regular seasons just to win something. At last, they claimed the Supporters Shield this year, for putting together the best regular season record across the two conferences. The "Curse of Caricola," it seemed, was lifted. Whether you believe in these things or not, the consistency of the Red Bulls’ misfortune had been uncanny ever since Nicola Caricola had bungled the only goal of the then-MetroStars maiden MLS game into his own net back in 1996.

The Red Bulls needed wins from their final regular season games, and flying in the face of their entire body of work in crucial games throughout their history, they got the needed victories, ending with an emphatic 5-2 hammering of the Chicago Fire at home. Under rookie head coach Mike Petke, who had bled for the club as a player, it all seemed different. This wasn’t your hapless New York franchise of yore, even if the hard-core fans sang “We support the Metro” for the first six minutes straight of Wednesday night’s Eastern Conference semifinals second leg against the Houston Dynamo.

But by the time that second leg kicked off, things had already regressed to the mean. On Sunday, in the first leg of the tie down in Texas, the Red Bulls had taken a commanding lead into halftime, courtesy of two well-worked goals. But then defensive rock Jamison Olave stupidly got himself sent off for a rash scissor tackle some 40 yards from his own goal and the series swiveled. A pair of poor clearances donated the Dynamo two scrambly, silly goals to tie up the game.

Still, the Red Bulls seemed imperious on Wednesday against a scrappy Dynamo team that specializes in grinding out results, who have clawed out two consecutive MLS Cup appearances -- twice losing to the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy.

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The Red Bulls controlled the game and produced chances in bulk. In the 23rd minute, they even got a little lucky. The otherwise imperturbable Dynamo goalie Tally Hall spilled a Lloyd Sam cross at the near post for Bradley Wright-Phillips to pounce on and sweep into the gaping nets, making it 1-0 and 3-2 on aggregate.

And then, the Red Bulls blew it, because of course the Red Bulls blew it. Ibrahim Sekagya, with no pressure on him at all, tried to play a pass out of the back -- across his own goal, defying everything any youth player anywhere is taught -- sending the ball right into the feet of Brad Davis. They don’t call the latter the left-footed David Beckham for nothing. Goalkeeper Luis Robles never had a chance -- 1-1 and 3-3.

The Red Bulls remained largely in control but grew increasingly wasteful in front of goal. A 90th-minute Thierry Henry bicycle kick was cleared off the line. Of course.

And when the final whistle rung out and the away goals rule offered no respite. MLS is one of the few leagues where those don’t count in knockout games. Of course.

The talismanic Tim Cahill, who had been bailing the Red Bulls out all year, had been mostly invisible. Of course.

In the 104th minute, Omar Cummings, who had scrambled in the equalizer in the first leg got himself onto the end of a loose ball in the box, knocked down by Cam Weaver, and poked it an inch or two over the goal line before Robles could catch up to it, giving Houston the lead. Of course.

As the clock wound down on the second half of extra time, on yet another Red Bulls season, a sense of inevitability took hold. There was cheering and shouting, but the outcome seemed to have dried up and hardened already. All Petke could do was stand along the sideline, hands in his pockets, and shake his head.

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“We pretty much gave them a gift, an early Christmas present,” Cahill would say after the game in a locker room that felt stunned much more than glum. “So they should enjoy it. It’s quite a weird feeling because I feel we were definitely the better team. I don’t think any team’s really scored an amazing goal against us.”

“This year felt special, for sure,” said Robles. “In the end, it was our mistakes that doomed us.”

Petke was in no mood for reflection or introspection. Instead, he pondered the place of yet another collapse in club lore: “I guess you can’t exorcise every demon in one year from this club.”

The “Curse of Olave” has a nice ring to it, perhaps.

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