Mike Grella knows firsthand what kind of damage an early goal can cause. He saw what it did to the Philadelphia Union when he scored seven seconds into their Oct. 18 game at Red Bull Arena. The Union, a team playing out the regular-season string, had their spirit broken and a Red Bulls’ victory was never in doubt.
So when the Columbus Crew scored just nine seconds into Sunday’s first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals at MAPFRE Stadium, you had to wonder how the Red Bulls would react.
“In a difficult game like that we had tons of energy going in, tons of confidence, and that goal at nine seconds, it zaps your energy, it zaps your legs and your mind and everything,” Grella said. “Such a quick goal in the most important game of the year, it definitely took us a long time to start to get going again.”
Defender Matt Miazga, one of the culprits during the mix-up on the goal, also felt the jolt.
“It’s obvious we were a bit rattled. That’s normal,” Miazga said. “When you go down nine seconds into the game in the Eastern Conference Finals, it definitely rattles you. But you saw in the game afterward we had a couple of chances to tie it up and it could have changed the game, but we didn’t do that. We got punished for it.
“Sometimes things like this happen in soccer. We weren’t ready. The defense was to blame. We weren’t ready, simple as that. We knew at times they were going to do that kind of play. We were prepared for it but we just couldn’t execute it. We didn’t see it coming. We just have to learn from our mistakes and hopefully we can correct them for the next game.”
Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said throughout the year that crazy things happen in big games and it’s up to the team to be ready to adjust and handle it. That’s where preparation and a steely mindset come in.
“They just caught us on a play,” Marsch said. “Not that we knew that that designed play was coming, but we had prepared for plays like that. This happens. In all these playoff games crazy things can happen and we have to be ready for them. It rattled us a little bit but we actually managed the next 80 minutes okay.
“It wasn’t like they were just all over us and had the game. We had chances. We managed to do a lot of things in that game to still gain a little bit of an edge, but we know we could have done better. Going into this next game, at home, we know we’re going after it and we have confidence to step on the field and still find a way to survive through the series.”
That means scoring at least two goals and holding the Crew without a goal. And even that will only get the Red Bulls a shot at extra time or penalty kicks. To win in regulation, it will take at least a 3-0 victory. Marsch, who was named MLS Coach of the Year on Tuesday, believes the Red Bulls are up to the challenge.
“It comes at a time when we’ll find out how good a coach I am,” Marsch said. “We’re in a situation here. It’s not the worst. Being down 2-0, we’re not afraid of the situation. We know coming back to Red Bull Arena that we’ve been very good here, and we’re going to rely on our fans and a full stadium, and in all ways we’re going after this game. We’re excited for this challenge. It’s a big challenge, but we’re excited for it.”
The Crew did a good job bottling up wingers Grella and Lloyd Sam, and Sacha Kljestan was ineffective in getting the offense going. Consequently, forward Bradley Wright-Phillips did not get the service he usually sees, and except for a couple of half-chances he was not a factor.
“They did a really good job of doubling down pretty quickly on us and made it difficult for us,” Grella said. “They know a lot of the danger of the team comes from the front four, so they did very good at doing that. We could have been a lot better. We could have played a little bit better. We could have been sharper with our passes, sharper with our movement. Those are things we need to work on. Those are things we are generally very good at at home.”
As badly as the Red Bulls played, if the game ended 1-0, that would have been an easier result to accept. The back-breaking play came with five minutes remaining, when Crew midfielder Cedrick threaded his way through the Red Bulls defense and was unlucky not to score, but his shot rebounded off goalkeeper Luis Robles’ hand and dropped in front of the net for forward Kei Kamara to tap in.
How badly did that second goal change the series outlook?
“It changed everything,” Miazga admitted. “Being one goal down, it’s easy to at least get one goal at home, but now we have to get two goals and don’t concede, so it’s definitely tough. Obviously an away goal would have helped, but we didn’t get one. We dug a hole for ourselves and we’ve got to regroup.
“We’re a confident team and we’re confident we will come back and make a game out of it, and we have a belief that we can dig ourselves out of this hole. We’ve been written off all year. This won’t change anything. We’ve just got to do our job and get the result.”
Grella said the team knows what needs to be done, but he says it’s nothing they haven’t been through before this season.
“We know what we did wrong,” he said. “We watched plenty of video (Tuesday). It was a tough game for sure. Credit to them. Tough atmosphere, tough when you give up a goal so early on, but the spirit around here is super positive. The game on Sunday is very important, but this is a test. It’s just one of our many tests that we passed all year and this is just another, maybe our biggest test yet. We need to enjoy this moment and take this test on. I believe in every single one of us that we have what it takes to do it.
“Credit to them, they were good. They’re very strong at home, they felt very confident, they got on the ball and did all the things that they needed to do to make it difficult for us. For large parts of that game we also had control, and if a couple of half-chances go in we might be having a different conversation. It’s only halftime, and there’s a lot to play for on Sunday.”