HOUSTON -- Standing on the Robertson Stadium field and surrounded by a sea of 30,000 orange-clad Houston Dynamo fans, the New York Red Bulls faced some of the longest odds ever faced by a Major League Soccer team.
Having backed into the playoffs with just one road win all year, and playing a Houston Dynamo team that had never lost a playoff game at home, the Red Bulls were considered an overwhelming underdog. They were supposed to be an inevitable victim in the path of Houston's quest for a third straight MLS Cup title.
Somebody forgot to tell the Red Bulls, who stunned the defending champions with a gutsy, disciplined and inspired performance. Midfielder Dane Richards used his speed to shred Houston's league-best defense, goalkeeper Danny Cepero made a handful of jaw-dropping saves, and a patchwork lineup came together to help the Red Bulls score a 3-0 series-clinching victory in what was arguably the biggest upset in MLS playoff history.
"We were physical, scored on chances that we created, we defended with our lives, we were a team, a unit," said Red Bulls striker Juan Pablo Angel.
"If you play like that, you always have a chance to beat anyone."
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While Angel all but carried the Red Bulls into the playoffs, the team's ousting of the Dynamo was as much a collective effort as you could ask for. Facing a Houston lineup with more talent and established names, the Red Bulls played cohesively and executed their game plan to perfection, frustrating Houston with tireless effort and capitalizing on the chances they generated.
Houston showed some championship fight in trying to claw back into the match despite being down 2-0 at halftime, but missed opportunities, defensive breakdowns and career-defining performances from two opposing players proved too much for the Dynamo to overcome. After years of playoff comebacks, Houston couldn't muster one more, and suddenly and shockingly, the Dynamo's dynasty was halted after two championship seasons.
"New York had a game plan, and I guess they executed it," Houston striker Brian Ching said. "When we dig a hole for ourselves, it's tough to come out.
"We've done it for the past couple of years, but if you do it enough, it'll catch up to you."
The seeds for Sunday's shocking result were sewn in the Red Bulls' embarrassing, regular-season-ending 5-2 loss to the Chicago Fire. Chicago shredded New York, exposing some real flaws in the Red Bulls' lineup and pushing the Red Bulls to the brink of missing the playoffs. After D.C. United missed its chance to beat out New York for the final playoff spot, the Red Bulls were given a lifeline and head coach Juan Carlos Osorio accepted the reality that he needed to make major changes if his team was going to have any chance in the playoffs.
Rather than stick with three midseason signings that he had expected to be anchors of the team, Osorio accepted that Jorge Rojas, Juan Pietravallo and Gabriel Cichero were not getting the job done and turned to three players he had barely used in the season's final months: John Wolyniec, Luke Sassano and Sinisa Ubiparipovic. If he knew one thing about that threesome, it was that all three would give him every ounce of effort that they could and all three would commit to his game plan.
"Not to take anything away from Jorge, Juan and Gabriel, who did help us win some important games during the season, but we needed players who were in form and who could do the job, and I was confident in Luke, Sinisa, John, Diego [Jimenez] and Andrew [Boyens]," Osorio said.
"Sometimes you must make difficult decisions, but every one of those players worked hard all season to earn the opportunity and they have all showed why they were deserving."
While the Red Bulls still have work to do, Sunday's playoff victory served as sweet reward for enduring a season that has been filled with obstacles. When you consider Jozy Altidore's transfer, Claudio Reyna's retirement, the drug suspensions of starters Jon Conway and Jeff Parke, and the loss of key starter Seth Stammler to injury just before the playoffs, the Red Bulls could have felt sorry for themselves and their misfortune, but instead they seized the moment and delivered the best performance in club history.
Now the team some critics felt didn't deserve to be in the playoffs is one step away from the MLS Cup final.
"I hear a lot of people say that we didn't deserve to be in the playoffs, and I think that's nonsense," Angel said. "We're here and now people are starting to talk about us."
"It's not over," Angel said. "We know that we're on the doorstep of the big party of the year. We would like to get it right, but we have a very difficult challenge ahead."
Having already faced the longest of odds, the Red Bulls will head into Saturday's Western Conference final against Real Salt Lake riding a wave of momentum, confidence and belief. They will go into the West final as underdogs, but after the odds they have already overcome just to get there, the Red Bulls should relish that label.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.