Homegrown left back John Tolkin claimed the Red Bulls perform better when they have their ‘backs against the wall’ earlier this week but the pressure finally caught up with New York as they couldn’t survive a ten-round penalty shootout against FC Cincinnati.
After being routed 3-0 in the opening game, the Red Bulls returned home to New Jersey for a must-win clash against the No. 1 seed.
The Red Bulls have had a must-win mentality for over a month, winning four of their last five regular season games, including a last-minute Decision Day triumph in Nashville to inch through to the postseason. They then dominated Charlotte 5-2 in the Wild Card matchup to seal their spot in the first round.
And that grit and determination needed was found in abundance once again in New Jersey.
But grit alone against the Supporters’ Shield winners wasn’t enough as Aaron Boupendza’s second-half strike canceled out Tom Barlow’s 45th-minute opener, forcing ten rounds of penalties, which New York couldn’t battle its way out of without head coach Troy Lesense, who was sent to the stands following his second yellow card.
FC Cincinnati emerged victorious from a penalty shootout to eliminate New York Red Bulls
Tom Barlow opened the scoring for the hosts in a must-win Game 2 at Red Bull Arena
Tom Barlow’s effort ricocheted off Roman Celentano’s thigh and spilled into the goal
The Red Bulls gave it their all and still fell short. But there was no shame in losing to the MLS Cup favorites – not according to Lesesne.
‘This group had a choice to make,’ the head coach told reporters following the loss. ‘They had a choice when our situation was the worst in the league. We were bottom of the table and the players had a choice to make; we can stay in that position or we can fight. And every single step of the way from May 8 until where we are today, even towards the end of that game and penalties, there is no quit in this group. And that is something you have to respect.’
He added: ‘You have to give credit to Cincinnati. I don’t think it was their best day but they find a way to stay in the game, find a big chance and then they execute that moment.
‘And that’s what they’ve done all year long, and that’s why they’re the No. 1 team in MLS and that’s why I think they’re going to have a great chance of lifting the MLS Cup. So credit to Pat [Noonan] and his staff.’
Hunting down a crucial win, New York came out with high intensity, constantly surging forward with Daniel Edelman and Luquinhas linking up to find promise down the left side throughout the first half.
And just five minutes in, their pressing looked to have paid off when John Tolkin was brought down in the box but the referee didn’t give the penalty and VAR wasn’t even called into action, leading Red Bull Arena to see red.
On the 21st-minute mark, Elias Manoel sent two Cincinnati defenders skidding before firing off a shot that finally had the crowd off their feet but it agonizingly curled over the bar, failing to provide the hosts with a vital opener.
But chances alone weren’t good enough and with each one that failed to be converted into a goal, the level of desperation inside the stadium ramped up.
Cincinnati midfielder Obinna Nwobodo (right) brings down New York’s Luquinhas (left)
The high-intensity and physical game saw a number of challenges that sparked confrontations
New York looked set to rue their squandered chances as the No. 1 seed sparked to life when Dominique Badji burst past the Red Bulls’ backline and into the box in the 25th minute but Carlos bailed out the hosts by blocking the thumping effort.
It was the last contribution from the Senegalese forward who exited the game just ten minutes later after receiving treatment on the field and was replaced by Boupendza.
But New York was relentless, refusing to concede any ground to the visitors and Barlow finally delivered the essential goal on the brink of halftime.
At first the forward looked to have wasted another chance for the Red Bulls as he scrambled to get the ball out from under his feet before firing his shot directly at Roman Celentano, but fortunately for New York it ricocheted off the diving goalkeeper’s thigh spilling over his leg and into goal.
But it wasn’t over yet, Lesesne and his side headed into halftime knowing that the job was only half done with a long 45 minutes lying ahead before safety could be considered guaranteed.
And as the minutes of the second half ticked by, corners began to be celebrated like goals, saves like championships.
But the stadium fell silent in the 75th minute when Luciano Acosta cruised his way through New York’s defense before threading the ball through to Cincinnati substitute Boupendza, who pulled the trigger, finally beating Carlos.
Cincinnati had several chances to win the game in regular time and looked to have done so in the final minute of injury time.
Aaron Boupendza (center) replaced Dominique Badji who exited the game through injury
Celentano (right) saved the penalty attempt from Andre Reyes to seal the win for Cincinnati
But it was chalked off by VAR for a foul on Carlos in the buildup, taking the game to a penalty shootout which the Red Bulls had to navigate without head coach Lesesne on the sidelines after he was sent off in injury time after a second yellow card.
Santiago Arias handed New York a lifeline when he missed Cincinnati’s third spotkick but ironically it was local lad Tolkin who couldn’t produce when he found his back against the wall, missing when he had the chance to secure a return trip to TQL Stadium.
On the ninth round, Carlos, the man of the hour once again, saved Yerson Mosquera’s but Serge Ngoma couldn’t get the job done for the hosts before Junior Moreno scored for Cincinnati and Celentano saved the attempt from Andre Reyes, winning the shootout 8-7 and knocking New York out of the playoffs.
The Red Bulls have not won a playoff game since 2018 and, despite the best attempts to resist being suffocated by the pressure Saturday night, that streak crushingly remains intact.