This one will have its own place among the franchise’s annals of U.S. Open Cup horror stories. Home game, a man up for 50 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra time, a ton of goal-scoring opportunities, but in the end another gut-wrenching elimination.
The game came down to a penalty-kick shootout, the first time that has happened in franchise history. But this one hurt the most because for the first time in 20 years a coach put an emphasis on winning the tournament and the path was there for not only a long run, but a good chance for a trophy.
But it wasn’t to be. Despite dominating large portions of the game and being aided by a red card in the first half, the Red Bulls lost to the Philadelphia Union, 4-3 on penalty kicks following a 1-1 tie, in the quarterfinals of the Open Cup before a crowd of 9,272 Tuesday afternoon at Red Bull Arena.
“When I look at our team I am just proud of our guys,” said goalkeeper Luis Robles, who saved one of five penalty kicks in the shootout. “This one is a tough one because this was one of our goals. We really felt that we could win, having the sort of path that we did, able to play at home against Philly. Regardless of the time and the sort of weather that we are going to go up against, the boys felt very confident.
“I think the big letdown was when everyone walked into the locker room today, we all thought we were going to win. Sure, you look at the past, there was a belief, but there wasn't that same sort of authenticity that existed here. I envisioned us winning and us celebrating even when we were going into the PKs. I think that's the hardest part. Dealing with the result when you so believed that it was going to be the other way around.”
The Red Bulls took it to the Union right from the start, with Felipe nearly scoring in the third minute with a shot from 23 yards that John McCarthy, the team’s 23-year-old goalkeeper, pushed aside with a leap to his left as the ball was headed for the upper right corner.
From there, McCarthy did little wrong. And when he was in the wrong place, he was saved by the woodwork or his teammates, who cleaned up in front of him.
Dominating the game, the Red Bulls appeared to get the break they needed in the 40th minute when Union forward Conor Casey bowled over Red Bulls defender Connor Lade from behind, throwing a forearm at the back of Lade’s head in the process. Referee Christopher Penso was immediate with the red card.
But as often happens in games when one team has a numerical advantage and is pressing the issue, the team with 10 men catches them on a break and grabs the lead. And that’s just what happened.
A turnover and a through pass on the left sent Union midfielder Vincent Nogueira into the box. He centered the ball in front where a wide-open Eric Ayuk was there for an easy tap-in to give the Union a 1-0 lead in the 55th minute.
“We've had a few teams go down to 10 men and we haven't really played so well once it's down to 10 men,” Sam said. “That's something we have to work on. It was difficult to break them down, obviously. They had (nearly) 90 minutes with 10 men so you'd think we should win, but we let in a goal and then we can't take our chances.”
The Red Bulls continued to press and coach Jesse Marsch sent on forward Mike Grella for forward Anatole Abang, midfielder Sal Zizzo for defensive midfielder Felipe, and finally midfielder Manolo Sanchez for defender Damien Perrinelle in an all-out effort to score.
It finally paid off – with seconds to spare in second-half stoppage time.
Defender Matt Miazga, pressing forward, headed the ball back into the box off a defensive clear. The ball was headed in the air by a Union defender and Grella headed it in front of the net. Sam, with his back to the goal, chested the ball down, spun to his right and snapped a left-footed shot past McCarthy to tie the game in the 94th minute.
“I don't think it even should have gone to penalties, but at the same time we were lucky to get the goal at the end to push it to extra time, so you could look at it both ways,” Marsch said. “Certainly I think if we're sharper on the day that we put that game away early. Even when it was even up, I thought we had chances. That's two games against Philly where you feel like we're in control for a lot of the game, but we're just unable to make plays and punish them, and on the other side, they were able to make plays and punish us.”
Energized by the goal the Red Bulls pushed forward in extra time for the winner, and nearly had it five minutes into the second 15-minute session when Sanchez struck the base of the left post with a shot, but McCarthy always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
That was apparent with five minutes to play when he kicked out a shot by Grella, who let fly with a left-footer that surely appeared to be a game-winner.
“I think I did everything right there,” Grella said. “I felt like I took the chance well. I just had to hit it low because I had to do it quickly because two defenders were so close. If I had a second more I’d be able to finish it better, more clear, and put it up in the goal, but I just turned and shot it. Usually those are goals or good, solid chances, but he made a great save there.”
So the game went to penalty kicks. Bradley Wright-Phillips took the first PK and promptly drilled a shot off the crossbar.
“Bradley stepped up and said ‘I want to take the first one,’ so I said ‘great,’ ” Marsch said. “I keep encouraging him to have confidence from the spot, obviously now that's the third one that doesn't go in for him, but I don't want for him to waiver in his confidence. I want him to know how important he is to our team and the belief we all have in him. I know he's hurting bad, but he'll recover and he'll be fine.”
Quickly in a hole, the Red Bulls never recovered. Dax McCarty and Grella converted the next two for the Red Bulls, but the Union made their first three. Sam stepped up and drilled a shot to the lower right corner that McCarthy bobbled. The ball rolled to the goal line but McCarthy pulled it back before the entire ball crossed the line.
Robles dove to make a save to keep the Red Bulls alive and Sacha Kljestan converted to make it 3-3 in the shootout, but Union forward Fernando Aristeguieta calmly lined his shot into the left-side netting to vault his team into the semifinals.
“What frustrates me about that penalty is that I was very confident and I tried to be brave after missing two in one game and I just wasn't rewarded for it and my team's out of the Open Cup now,” a somber Wright-Phillips said. “I was very confident. My record before this, I had 100 percent, I was very confident. I thought this would've been the penalty to help me get back on track by putting my team 1-0 up, but it wasn't.”
Robles felt bad for Wright-Phillips but also felt he should have made more than one save.
“That’s the disappointing part of this. I just don’t want to make one save, I mean, realistically, I’m not going to save every one, but going into that shootout, looking at our shooters and the confidence that I have in myself, I really felt we were going to come out on the better end,” he said.
“Sure, I made one (save), but it’s tough to mimic those situations in training. You have fun with the guys and there’s still some joking about, but that moment I thought the focus was there. I felt like before every single shot I had the confidence that I was going to save more than one PK. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there today.