New York, Dallas will return stronger after conference final heartbreak
Heading into Major League Soccer's Decision Day more than a month ago, both the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas had a shot at the Supporters' Shield -- New York won the trophy on goal differential. Now, in the week building up to MLS Cup, both must watch from home. Graham Parker explains where things went wrong for MLS's two best regular-season clubs from 2015.
New York Red Bulls
There was a telling moment at the New York Red Bulls' end-of-season media availability Monday morning. After sporting director Ali Curtis and head coach Jesse Marsch had spoken to journalists in the Red Bulls press conference room, the press were sent into the home locker room, where the Red Bulls players were filing in at the same time to fill the seats and answer questions.
For a brief moment, the press pack paused awkwardly in the middle of the room, looking around, wondering who to start with. One Red Bulls staffer wryly noted that "last year was easy, you guys just clustered around Thierry [Henry]."
The transformation of the Red Bulls into a hard-working collective rather than a star vehicle has been the story of their season. The way they went down swinging in the final minutes of that season perhaps summed up both the strengths and the limits of what were possible for a team forged in the most testing circumstances.
In some ways, the Red Bulls' intensity meant that the whole season was played as one long cup tie, with the team casting themselves as perpetual underdogs. And as time ran out on their season, nobody could fault the collective effort and commitment of the team, even as you sensed that the lack of variety in attack in the playoffs was ultimately going to undo them.
Columbus Crew SC took their early goal in the series and built a 180-minute performance that left the Red Bulls constantly playing catch-up in more ways than one. By the time New York were swinging wildly at the end of the second leg, they looked like a game-but-outfought boxer looking for a lucky punch in the final round when way behind on points.
They were showing plenty of will, but not quite enough guile. Speaking with Marsch on Monday morning, he was unwilling to characterize his team's occasional struggles to break down bunkered teams this year as a weakness, but he conceded that in keeping the core of this team together next year -- as he and Curtis plan to -- they will have to raise the all-round levels to deal with the target that will now be on the team's back.
That won't mean any change in transfer policy, though. If anything, Marsch was keen to point out that at the end of the year, training sessions still included up to 35 players. One might have expected a narrowing of the focus to concentrate purely on the first team at that point, but the longer-term project is about integrating promising youth players, and the club remained true to that to the end.
Back to that moment in the locker room, and when the press pack finally fragmented to different corners, I found myself talking to goalkeeper Luis Robles. He'd had trouble sleeping the previous night, he said, but had also found himself thinking about previous MLS Cup winners such as Sporting Kansas City and their serial trials en route to making the breakthrough. He also wanted Columbus to go on and win the MLS Cup, to show that a collective with a strong sense of identity, and who've been through playoff disappointments of their own, could be a model for success.
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For a player on another team that might read that as wishful thinking under the circumstances, but with a full season to prepare and perhaps some further technical complexity to add to the team spirit, Robles has good reason to believe the Red Bulls will be a force again next year. And, perhaps, finally ready to make that next step.
Before the playoffs began, I said that Dallas were a young team who were maybe still a year off their best. I'd still stick to that, but the schedule for "peak Dallas" seems to move forward every day.
Measuring the year-on-year exponential improvement by looking at the performances against the Seattle Sounders in consecutive conference semifinals, you have to take into account Seattle's own drop-off this season, as much as you credit the improvements of Dallas. That said, there were signs in both the Seattle and Portland series of both the growth in self-belief within this Dallas side during the past year and the next level of game management that will make them an elite team.
Much like the Red Bulls in the East, Dallas relied on an ability to roll over teams. More so than New York, though, FCD tended to look like they had more varieties of plans B, C and D, when plan A -- blistering speed and directness with a sprinkling of Mauro Diaz's creative magic -- failed.
What they never quite solved was closing out games defensively. Walker Zimmerman's late heroics against Seattle rather masked the fact that an exhausted-looking Sounders team should have been out of sight by that point in the tie. Against Portland, the defensive hole Dallas had dug for themselves turned out to be too deep for even their late rally to do more than shake the Timbers. When Portland boss Caleb Porter decided attack was the best form of defense late on, he was rewarded with a killer goal, while Dallas looked faintly puzzled to be back in their own half when they were geared to be buzzing around the other end of the field.
Nevertheless, this has been an extraordinary year for Oscar Pareja and his young team, and even without further personnel changes, next year is shaping up to be even greater. Pareja, the one-time prodigy himself, has had no qualms about trusting youth all year, right up to the point of replacing veteran Zach Loyd with 22-year-old Zimmerman for Sunday's second leg.
Never mind the attacking flair that has rightfully garnered so much attention this year, when the defensive midfield tandem of Victor Ulloa and Kellyn Acosta mature further and add better game management to their repertoires, Dallas are shaping up to be formidable contenders not just next year but in the seasons to come. Jesse Gonzalez, too, deserved better than to end his rapid ascent as the team's first-choice goalkeeper this year with the image of him sprawled on the ground as Lucas Melano wriggled around him to kill off the game.
Gonzalez will come back stronger, for sure, and if Pareja's team can start to build an institutional memory to manage both the regular-season grind and the idiosyncrasies of the playoffs better, they could be contenders for the foreseeable future. This year wasn't their year and was probably never quite likely to be, but next year and the year after that ...
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.