We thought we wouldn’t see one of these games this year. You know the ones. The games where the Red Bulls get an early gift to take control, don’t take advantage of it, then self-destruct en route to a horrible defeat.
Fourteen games into the new regime, we got one.
And this one ranks high because the two main culprits – Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan – are team leaders who are counted on for their reliability, leadership and professionalism.
Instead, Wright-Phillips missed two penalty kicks, becoming the first player in the 20-year history of Major League Soccer to do so in the same game, and Kljestan received a red card for foolishly striking out at an opponent just 11 minutes into the match as the Red Bulls lost their fourth straight, 2-1, to the Vancouver Whitecaps before a crowd of 20,053 at Red Bull Arena.
At 4-5-5, the Red Bulls have fallen to seventh place in the Eastern Conference, having earned just one point from the past five games.
“It’s frustrating for sure,” team captain Dax McCarty said. “There’s not much to say other than we seem to be reverting back to the Red Bulls of old in terms of how we lose games. It’s self-inflicted. We turned the corner last year and in the past two years. We stopped losing games on our own and we were making teams beat us, and it was tough for teams to beat us. Now we’ve reverted back to beating ourselves.”
The Red Bulls, now 0-3-3 lifetime against Vancouver, saw the game flip early, going from what seemed like a sure lead, to going a man down, to going down a goal in a span of 10 minutes.
Sal Zizzo was taken down in the box by Whitecaps defender Steven Beitashour in the fourth minute and Wright-Phillips stepped up to take the penalty kick. Wright-Phillips, who had never missed a PK in eight attempts with the team, sent his shot to the left side, but Vancouver goalkeeper David Ousted dove to parry it away.
Physical mistakes can be accepted, but Kljestan’s mental lapse in the 11th minute really hurt. Feeling he was grabbed during a play in the box, Kljestan threw an elbow at Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston. The elbow missed, but Kljestan kicked his leg backward and made contact with Waston, whose embellished fall to the ground convinced referee Jorge Gonzalez to pull out the red card.
“It was a stupid play by me. I take responsibility,” said Kljestan, who waited in the locker room hours after the incident to explain what happened. “Waston is hugging me in the box and he is holding me and I threw an elbow towards him to get rid of him. I didn’t connect on the elbow. I don’t know if the ref gave me the red card for the elbow or Waston standing over me. I tried to push him back and I lifted my leg up and then he acted like I stepped on him.
“I’ve got to take responsibility for what I did, even if I didn’t connect with him. I made a stupid play, an idiotic decision in the heat of the moment, and I have to take responsibility for losing this game for us, because if I stay on the field I think we win the game.
“My biggest criticism of the MLS is that the amount of grabbing and hugging and holding and fouling that goes on in the box and the referees do not protect the attacking player. And it annoys me so much, and at that moment I got annoyed and threw my elbow to get free of Waston bear-hugging me and it was a stupid play.”
Four minutes later the Whitecaps (9-6-2) had the lead.
Beitashour overlapped on the right and sent a waist-high cross into the box, where Kekuta Manneh cut in front of Red Bulls defender Chris Duvall to volley the ball past Luis Robles.
The Red Bulls regrouped and were actually playing well with 10 men before self-destructing again. The team earned a second penalty kick when substitute Anatole Abang had his jersey grabbed by a defender in the box on a cross from Mike Grella. Wright-Phillips stepped up again, but this PK was hit poorly down the center and Ousted made the save.
“Yeah, I wanted to take it. I was confident I’d score,” a somber Wright-Phillips said. “The keeper wanted a battle today. I suppose that’s how it goes.
“I was just trying to get my team back in the game. If I had scored that first penalty it’s a different game, and if I hadn’t missed these penalties it’s a different game. Even in the second half with a man down I thought that we dominated. It’s a tough one to take, especially missing two penalties.
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said he had no intention of having someone else take the second PK.
“I was happy to see Bradley step up and have the confidence to take it again,” Marsch said. “I certainly wasn’t going to pull him off the ball. And then Ousted makes two good saves, not two of Bradley’s best PKs by any means, but this stuff can happen sometimes and it’s important as an important guy on our team and a good attacker that he finds a way not to let this dig a huge hole in his mentality. He needs to now stay focused and find ways to make it up to the team.
“This happens at different moments with different players. Whether it’s (Chris) Wondolowski at the World Cup or different players that have missed important chances for teams, and it’s important to come back and show you’re a man of character and show that you can handle the tough moments. I have no doubts that Bradley is that kind of man and that he’ll come back and find a way to do that.”
But once again, Vancouver responded. Breaking two-on-two, Octavio Rivero fed Kianz Froese on the right. The 19-year-old Froese, who had been on the field just six minutes, streaked past Red Bulls defender Damien Perrinelle and beat Robles with a low shot to the far side of the net in the 77th minute for his first professional goal.
Yet, at the darkest moment, the Red Bulls responded. Abang drove a cross from Duvall into the net with eight minutes to play to cut the deficit to 2-1, and rookie Manolo Sanchez, making his MLS debut, nearly scored from distance a minute later, but Ousted made his best save of the game, getting his arm on the ball to deflect it over the crossbar.
And then it was over.
“I felt bad for Brad,” Robles said. “I thought the keeper made some good saves on the PK. Maybe he went down the middle on the second one and it was a little too much to the side. But at the end of the day it was our mistakes that cost us. Sure, we missed two PKs, but we were still creating chances. On the back end, they were only dangerous on the counter. They were only dangerous on the break, and they got two good opportunities on the break and they capitalized.”
Kljestan, who will be suspended for Wednesday night’s home match against Real Salt Lake, addressed the team at halftime.
“I gave my apologies at halftime for putting them in that position to have to run so much more and work so much harder and put them in a position to be fighting and playing a man down,” he said. “So I’ve apologized to my teammates and they know how sorry I am.”
And they understood.
“Any one of us under the right circumstance can react emotionally,” Robles said. “We do our best as professionals to maintain a certain cerebral approach to the game, but emotions are part of it and at that moment, it seemed that his emotions got the best of him. He was very remorseful in the locker room and he apologized, but I think it's going to come down to what we said and what Jesse said – we aren't making plays. Our record speaks for itself. At the end of the day, if we want to be a winning team and a team that we say we are going to be, it requires the effort, but it also requires us making those plays.”
Added Wright-Phillips: “Sacha has already apologized. These things happen in football, just like missing two penalties, and you have to play a man down. If these things don’t happen it’s a totally different game. Sacha and I disappointed the team today.