While computing the various postseason berth scenarios created by the current MLS Playoffs format, one might forget to include the worst-case scenario among the hypothetical happy endings. It's easy to ask what's the best your MLS club can do, but less so while pondering what's the worst that could happen.
Fail to clinch a wild card berth? Check.
Render your team captain and league-leading goal scorer ineligible for the regular season finale? Check.
Reintroduce concerns about the club's complete inability to defend against set pieces? Check.
Put up so messy a performance that there's no goodwill to build from going forward? Check.
For the players who had to finish the final hour of Saturday's contest without their captain, they'll probably settle for whatever good news they can get after the Red Bulls' 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City at the home side's house of horrors.
"We knew coming in here, it was going to be tough because they play good at home," said midfielder Dane Richards. "And then, losing (Thierry) Henry in the 28th minute, that was even tougher. We managed to hold it out and then gave up two goals in set pieces, I’m disappointed about that. But you just have to look forward from here on."
In fact, only one thing the New York Red Bulls needed to happen on Saturday actually did: D.C. United fell 2-1 to the Chicago Fire later that day, thus ceding control of their playoff fate back to the Red Bulls. During a halftime interview on MSG, Red Bulls assistant coach Mike Petke described the ejection of Henry as the "icing on the cake" of a demoralizing performance. With D.C. losing, that's now accurate since the actual worst thing that could have happen -- losing control of their own playoff destiny -- ultimately did not.
But New York now has no chance to win the Eastern Conference nor clinch one of the conference's automatic playoff berths. They guaranteed themselves a finish no better than a lower-seeded wild card berth, which means the Red Bulls would take any postseason show on the road for the duration of the MLS playoffs -- and likely kick off out west against FC Dallas or the Colorado Rapids.
Those same Rapids snuck into the 2010 MLS Playoffs and snuck off with the MLS Cup, so anything's possible. That's one of the two messages Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe is ready relay to his players in preparation of yet another must-win match in next Thursday's regular season finale at Red Bull Arena against the Philadelphia Union (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes).
"I would say any team that goes into the playoffs can win," said Backe.
The other message? A familiar refrain: Win, and you're somehow still in.
Set Up to Fail. Losing Henry so early in Saturday's matches may have cut the wind out of New York's sails, but the remaining players on the pitch still had an hour's worth of game to play. They may have played with spirits low, but center back Stephen Keel recognizes how his side eventually let Sporting KC beat them.
"Both goals came off set pieces," said Keel. "Even a man down, we should have had everyone marked up. When you’re a man down, you get your chances. I thought we did a decent job – especially in the first half – to keep everything compact with the back four and organized with Rafa and Teemu in there to force them wide and deal with the crosses. It’s tough, but not something we shouldn’t be able to handle."
Precautionary Measure. Backe admitted after the match that his 70th-minute substitution of Luke Rodgers in favor of Juan Agudelo was not for defensive purposes, but because the English striker was one yellow card shy of being suspended for Thursday's finale as well due to yellow card accumulation.
No one can blame Backe for looking ahead to next Thursday's Philly finale after falling a man down and two goals behind, but the Red Bulls coach raised the de-facto white flag to give respect to a dominating Sporting KC performance as well.
"They had been on a phenomenal run," said Backe. "I remember when they played those 10 away games they didn’t have many points but after that, they had a phenomenal run. They’re a hardworking, physical team. They have three front guys – all three of them can score or set up goals."