New York's regular season wasn't supposed to end this way.
Picked by prognosticators as "the best in MLS on paper" and burdened with self-imposed expectations of winning the Supporters' Shield, no one expected the Red Bulls to need all 34 weeks -- including a 1-0 win over Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia Union on Thursday evening -- to clinch the last-remaining wild card berth.
And to realize that lesser feat, it took a league-leading 16 draws (including a league-high 10 on the road), only one win outside the Eastern Time Zone, a suspension to team captain Thierry Henry in the club's penultimate match, and a surging D.C. United running out of gas down the stretch.
Red Bulls coach Hans Backe still kept the hearts and minds of his club in line despite its midseason missteps. Backe admitted he didn't think it would take this long for the Red Bulls to punch their postseason ticket, but he's comfortable with his side's form in recent weeks.
"We looked very, very solid," Backe said. "Then we had the break for the Gold Cup and lost six players and after that we've been more or less striving to find our rhythm. But the last five or six games have looked much, much better."
Their recent form should help the Red Bulls get ready to make the most of their second consecutive postseason appearance and 11th overall. The loss to Sporting Kansas City notwithstanding, New York has seen its midfield reestablish its focus on possession while the return of Luke Rodgers from injury has unlocked the club's attack in recent weeks. They may not be peaking, but they're as dangerous as they can be heading into the wild-card round.
"If you look at the last month, we have been on a nice run with three wins, one tied game before the Kansas game," Backe said. "Of course going one man down after 29 minutes is difficult, so I don’t really count that game. It looks like we hopefully, hopefully are closer to a peak when you go into the playoffs."
Setting the bar for playoff success is another matter. The newly imposed wild-card berths leave New York further from the Home Depot Center main stage in mid-November, and further from the quarterfinals round which the Red Bulls have only cleared twice in club history. And supporters know all too well that this New York side has fallen flat for weeks at a time, often at a moment's notice and always without warning.
It's not the path the Red Bulls intended to follow back in March, but it's still a narrow path that has not concluded prematurely. The conclusion to this 2011 MLS campaign has yet to be written, which allows Backe to believe his club can continue to follow to make a viable run for the MLS Cup.
"It is such a small margin to win these games, is like if you are going to a World Cup or something when you play that many games," Backe said. "We need to find the right performance, the right play, the right form just that day, then we can go through. I think it is even, I still think (Los Angeles) has been outstanding this year, but you know better than me that the team that has qualified eighth has won the cup. Everything is possible."
+11. According to the Opta Chalkboards, that's the interception differential which helped the Red Bulls defense keep a typically-potent Union attack in check. Jan Gunnar Solli led the way with five intercepted balls (four of which came in the first half), though Roy Miller (four) and Tim Ream (three) were no slouches, either. Their combined performace helped reinforce what Ream believes was one of the best defensive efforts by the Red Bulls this season.
"I think it was definitely the most complete," said Ream. "Their only real chances were from 20-25 yards out and those were handled pretty easily. Overall I definitely think it’s – (outsides) of the first five or six games - where we wanted to be all year."
Take Your Chances. An Faryd Mondragon own goal resulting from a rebound following a Dane Richards header boosted the Red Bulls into an early lead, but they didn't follow that up with additional offensive pressure until well into the second half. New York created two other shots on target and one miss, but it's the chances they didn't create that leaves Backe a little frustrated with his side's efforts in the attacking third.
"I believe we should have killed this game in the first half," said Backe. "Definitely could have put the score up two or three nil after 60 minutes, but they stayed in the game of course when we didn’t convert our chances. I’m happy to see that we could handle this pressure and create a number of chances."
One Night Only. According to Peter Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, exactly one match per season for the last eight seasons has ended with a 1-o result in which the only tally came from an own goal. It may only be a coincidence, but it's a happy one that lifted the Red Bulls into the postseason.