GIASE: A slow kill for the Red Bulls vs. D.C. as "this game was alive until the very end"

A few days before the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals against D.C. United, Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch talked about how these matchups often take time to settle in.

“And sometimes,” he said. “They never do.”

This one never did.

Despite holding D.C. United to two shots on goal over 180 minutes while playing extraordinary defense, the series was in doubt right until a clinching goal by Bradley Wright-Phillips in second-half stoppage time on Sunday when the Red Bulls eliminated their fiercest rival, 1-0, before 25,219 at a sold out Red Bull Arena.

The 2-0 aggregate victory advanced the top-seeded Red Bulls into the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will play the second-seeded Crew Nov. 22 in Columbus, Ohio, and Nov. 29 at Red Bull Arena. The Crew overcame a 2-1 loss in the first leg to eliminate the Montreal Impact, 4-3 on aggregate, following a 3-1 victory in extra time at home on Sunday.

“Yeah, this game was alive until the very end. Anything was possible,” Marsch said. “We kind of knew it was going to be like that. There aren’t too many playoff series where a team, especially in a two-leg series, just walks away with it. As much as we felt confident in our ability to be aggressive at home and score goals, the playoffs don’t always work like that.

“I don’t know that the series ever really settled down, you know? And it was almost 180 minutes of on its end, on the balance, one play, physical, no real rhythm. And sometimes that’s what it’s like, and our team did really well to survive the series and come out.”

The second leg played out just like the first one did. The Red Bulls dominated play, dominated the statistics, held D.C. United to very few scoring attempts, then scored a late winner. But with D.C. sitting back and playing for the counter attack, and the Red Bulls failure to capitalize on a few early chances, it was a nervy finish right to the end.

“It wasn’t an easy night because we didn’t get a flow to the game like we normally do at home, so that ability for guys to stay focused and to do whatever it took to gain an edge on plays was really important,” Marsch said.

The Red Bulls could have made the night much easier with an early score, and they had a great opportunity to do so in the second minute. On a set play, Sacha Kljestan grounded a corner kick from the right side toward the top of the box that appeared headed for defender Sal Zizzo, but Zizzo let the ball go through to midfielder Mike Grella, whose shot slammed off the crossbar.

“Yeah, that was a set-piece run for me, and even though I hit the post, it was still a half a foot away from being perfect, but still I have to hit the target on it because that was a good opportunity for us to go 1-0 ahead very early on,” Grella said. “It was all about the result tonight. For sure they did well to keep themselves in the game until the end, and we did whatever it took to get the result, and that is what’s important.”

It was another chippy game, just like the first leg, and neither team shied away from contact. Surprisingly, there were only three cautions given by referee Ted Unkel, who let both teams get away with increased physicality. Fortunately for the Red Bulls, neither of their central defenders, Matt Miazga or Ronald Zubar, who carried yellow cards from the first game, received another, so their record will be cleared for the next round.

“Yeah, I think the game was chippy like we thought,” Marsch said. “Big credit to D.C. because they came in here and made it harder on us. They never really allowed us to get into a rhythm and establish our flow in the game. Part of that is that we weren’t quite sharp enough, but a lot of credit has to go to D.C. for the type of game they put us in.”

D.C. United had two great chances in the first half that could have turned the series around. In the 32nd minute, defender Taylor Kemp sent a cross from the left that midfielder Perry Kitchen brought down at the top of the box. A short give-and-go with midfielder Nick DeLeon set Kitchen up for an open shot from 10 yards, but Zubar slid over to get a foot in and deflect the ball out of danger.

Four minutes later the Red Bulls were caught on a counter attack when goalkeeper Bill Hamid booted the ball to forward Fabian Espindola deep on the left side. With midfielder Felipe the only player back for the Red Bulls, Espindola sent a left-footed shot that that Felipe managed to get a toe on and the ball rolled just wide of the far post for a corner kick.

D.C. United, which didn’t register a shot on goal until an attempt from a tough angle on the right by Espindola in the 56th minute was easily pushed aside by Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, ending a streak of 145 minutes over the two legs without a shot on goal, never had another serious scoring threat.

“Certainly to get a shutout over two games is a testament to the whole team, but definitely the back line in their ability to make it hard on the attacking players,” Marsch said in praise of the back line. “I think for the whole series none of Espindola, (Alvaro) Saborio or (Chris) Rolfe got in behind our defense to cause problems.”

The Red Bulls had another great chance in the 53d minute when Kljestan’s cross from the right off a set piece found Zubar alone in front, but the defender volleyed his shot over the net.

Hamid, who along with Miazga will report to the U.S. national team camp for upcoming World Cup qualifiers, kept D.C. United in the game. He finished with four saves, including a leaping stop of a Kljestan chip in the 63rd minute when he palmed the ball over the crossbar.

“Our objective was to get through to the next round and we’ve done that, so we’re really happy to go through to the next round,” Red Bulls midfielder Lloyd Sam said. “That’s the main goal, and we got the job done. Credit to the defense for keeping the clean sheet.

“They’re our biggest rival so it’s personal for us and the fans, so it’s good to beat our rivals. ... It was a chippy game, which wasn’t bad for us. We didn’t want a game where there was lots of goals anyway, so keeping it like that suited us anyway, so it’s good to see us grind out a result.”

With D.C. United pressing forward in the finals moments, the Red Bulls went on a quick counter attack that should have sealed the game. Defender Kemar Lawrence sent a long pass out of the back that put Wright-Phillips on the run with only D.C. captain Bobby Boswell to beat. Wright-Phillips, with a step on Boswell, dribbled to the top of the box and hit a low shot toward the left post, but Hamid came out and pushed the ball away with his right hand.

With the game headed toward a scoreless draw, which would have advanced the Red Bulls through to the conference finals via the away goals rule, Wright-Phillips came through with a goal that brought a wave of relief to the players and the coaching staff and enabled the fans to have their moment of celebration.

Midfielder Gonzalo Veron stole the ball from Boswell along the right touchline 35 yards out and cut left toward the net. Kemp tried to get back to cover for Boswell, but he overran the play, which allowed Wright-Phillips to slip unguarded into the center of the box.

Veron played a perfect ball into the path of Wright-Phillips near the penalty spot. Hamid charged out and slid, but Wright-Phillips let the ball run, and when it got by Hamid it was an easy tap-in for his franchise-record sixth career playoff goal, breaking Adolfo Valencia’s record of five.

“The first chance was something I was waiting for all game,” Wright-Phillips said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game, tight defense, so I was waiting for that all game. I tried to go far post and Bill Hamid, the good goalkeeper that he is, made a great save.

“It was a nice feeling after just missing one and I was buzzing for Gonzalo. Both he and my brother have been training hard, so for them guys, when they get on, if they can just give an assist or a goal, it makes me happy because they could very easily be playing, and it shows how good our team is because we got two good wingers in Lloyd (Sam) and Mike (Grella).

And Marsch’s reaction when the ball went in?

“Jubilation,” he said. “I think our fans and their excitement, the energy of the stadium was rewarded with a big play at the end of the game and I think that’s, you know, I mean that’s what we try to figure out a way to do, is to just make a play to now give everybody a chance to congratulate this team, to experience this team, for the energy of the crowd to get rewarded.

“So yeah, I mean I guess I felt very good about that moment, too, and you know, we just want to keep going. We just want to survive and keep going.”