FC Cincinnati midfielder Luciano Acosta celebrates after scoring a penalty kick goal against the New York Red Bulls during the second half at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory (Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports)

Another second half to forget ended the New York Red Bulls’ 2022 season on Saturday afternoon. Despite taking the lead off a great Lewis Morgan goal, injuries and a defensive collapse allowed fifth seed FC Cincinnati to advance, 2-1. Fourth seed RBNY complete the year with a record of 19-8-13 (WDL) across all competitions.

Head coach Gerhard Struber wasn’t even thinking about the team’s next move. The coach, having just completed his second full year with the team, saw his group playing in next week’s conference semifinal.

“My plan was very clear: we stay in the playoffs and we go in the next round.” Struber said in a postgame press conference. “This means I have right now to handle management with my coaching team ‘what is the next step with this group?’. We have to reflect the whole season. We have to be also critical with ourselves, what could we do better, what we need in the future, which resources we need that we have in the end a higher chance to be in the playoffs and to be together with a group of players that have a realistic chance to speak about the trophy.”

The easiest, possibly laziest, way to describe the playoff exists is with three words; “That’s so Metro”. A 13-year playoff streak, zero MLS Cup appearances in that span, and fourth straight first round exit. No playoff or tournament trophies for the 26-year old club. The only Major League Soccer original team still playing with that honor. But Saturday’s loss wasn’t about the past. Even if veteran supporters felt as though nothing had changed during their fandom.

Against Cincinnati the Bulls were fairly even against the first time playoff team. While Cincy got closer to the net, New York seemingly held the ball in the visitor’s end more. That trade off meant Carlos Coronel was always on his toes in the box but he handled it to start. On offense, former FCC man Frankie Amaya and Lewis Morgan were the offense. The front attackers of Elias Manoel and Luquinhas were completely smothered by Cincy’s backline.

The three to five man group, headlined by former RBNY homegrown Matt Miazga, gave New York few looks on net.

Some of the biggest moments of the first half included a 26th minute near break by those attackers. During a counter, Manoel passed up to a running Luquinhas on the right side of the field. Miazga cleanly tackled the ball away from the Brazilian in the box but brought the forward down on top of him. He lifted Luquinhas off his body and threw him to the side, earning him a yellow. The moment took place in front of the South Ward, who rained down “Metro Reject” chants in one of their highest energy moments from the game.

The game progressed and soon Cincy was on their fourth corner kick of the game. In the 37th minute, a free kick from the left side near the corner flag sailed over the mass of players, including Coronel, and just to the right of the far post. The near Olympico, in a sense, was one of FCC’s best early looks at getting on the board. Those corners and that free kick were simply the result of an offense constantly attacking. By the end of the match they had seven, with a majority coming in the first half.

New York’s offense looked stale and un-conjoined. Nothing dynamic came in the first 45 minutes where simple forward passes to hopefully open players was the norm. On a team where Lewis Morgan or Cameron Harper have helped develop attacks from the wing, nothing seemed long term. That’s both a credit to Cincy, whose defense played high up to pressure, and also speaks to New York’s inability to adapt.

The home side’s best chance came in the 44th minute. Morgan, the leading scorer from this season, took a shot off a free kick outside of the opposing box. The winger’s direct attempt from the left side required Cincy keeper Roman Celentano to make one of his six saves of the day.

“Yeah, it was in the end two times not in the detail on this level of the game like they want,” Struber said. “And I think controls over long time the game in many directions, but you can see some small details decide in the end, you are in the next round or you step out. And today, I think this was, yeah, even the mistakes in the end, they bring us on the loser street, and this is hard to accept.”

The second half started in both the best and worst possible way for the Red Bulls. Coming off the attack, RBNY charged down the left side of the field and earned a corner. Eventually passed off and kicked into the box, a Cincy defender headed it towards Lewis Morgan on the left side who slammed home a goal to put New York up in the 49th. However, the leading scorer from this season looked uneasy after the celebration. Team captain Aaron Long called for a sub and Dylan Nealis entered the game for Morgan.

Struber said afterwards it seemed to be a groin injury. The winger immediately left the field and entered the locker room.

That loss affected the offense. The team’s attack along the wing was limited. Any attempts to go through the middle rested on Frankie Amaya. By this point the midfielder was getting tired and wasn’t able to develop as much or find as much room. Struber even admitted that his team backed off offensively because of Morgan’s departure.

With Amaya already playing forward, the newly entering Nealis moved into a midfielder role on the right side. Andrés Reyes, the right back who started the match, stayed in the game until the 82nd minute. Bringing in someone like Dylan Nealis for Morgan just left the offense severely hampered. It’s even more odd considering attacking midfielders Dru Yearwood, available after his suspension, and Wikelman Carmona were both on the bench and didn’t get used.

The wheels started to come off int the 61st minute when it looked as though FCC tied the game. A shot through traffic by Júnior Moreno was deflected in by Geoff Cameron. Coronel never looked upset and knew a VAR check was coming. When it did, the goal was called back.

Still the 17,000 fans in attendance were on edge. The smaller crowd, affected by both the noon start time and general apathy towards the squad, might have had the doubts creeping in. They were realized in the 72nd minute when Cincinnati’s Alvaro Barreal was fouled by Andrés Reyes in the box. Manoel attempted to grab a loose ball but tripped Barreal. Luciano Acosta’s right footed attempt went low and to the right as Coronel went in the opposite direction.

The atmosphere in the arena completely nose dived after this goal. While the South Ward was still loud, much of Red Bull Arena was tense. The away supporters at the north end of the arena picked up on this and poured on the chants. It wasn’t hard to overpower the crowd when the attendance was not much more than half the arena’s capacity.

When a team is offering $15 tickets to students and local residents for a playoff game 48 hours out, it doesn’t inspire confidence. When most of the locals would rather see a high school soccer game a town over, it says something. On the day, while the most passionate were out in force it was hard to ignore their pain when the loss arrived.

“I understand then (the fans) have a different expectation, especially when you wait a long time for a trophy. (At) the same time, we have to realize which resources and which players we go into a season (with),” Struber lamented to the media corps. “I have so much big trust in the players we have at the moment… But the game today show us that, at the moment, with our group, with what we have at the moment, we are not ready to win this game. This is the reality.”

While it looked as though Dylan Nealis saved the team’s season in the 85th minute, clearing a loose ball off the line, it was short lived. Brandon Vazquez scored the winning goal in the 86th to seal the result. Nealis was beaten on the right side by second half substitute Sergio Santos, who spotted an uncovered Vazquez racing down the center of the field. The star forward easily scored on a right-footed shot past Coronel.

New York had twelve minutes of stoppage time to look for an equalizer but failed to do so. Second half sub Patryk Klimala had two attempts during the span, with one being saved and another blocked. Sean Nealis had a corner kick header saved about seven minutes in.

Struber later remarked that he believed both goals that Cincy scored were cheap. The result of small, individual mistakes by the team as a whole. In the end, he was still proud of what his young group accomplished this season.

“Of course I know that the experts, especially the Twitter experts, always (have) the special answers.”

That comment, responding to a question from NYC Sports Nation, is going to follow Struber for the rest of his tenure at RBNY. While he walked the field after the match, clapping and thanking supporters, many jeered as he approached. One Supporter Section leader even flipped the manager off as he walked by. The deteriorating relationship between the vocal, passionate team supporters and Struber isn’t new. It is similar to what Chris Armas dealt with during his stint as manager. However, it took Struber two seasons to get here, about one quicker than Armas.

Struber hopes to keep the team intact during the offseason. The recent re-signings of both John Tolkin and Sean Nealis is the first step of that. It’s unknown how much players like Kyle Duncan or Caden Clark will factor into those plans. While New York is not in line for CONCACAF Champions League next season, they will take part in the 2023 Leagues Cup along with every other MLS team and professional Mexican teams from Liga MX.

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