New York Red Bulls players look on during Game Two’s penalty shot-out at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, November 4, 2023 (Credit: Mark Smith/USA Today Sports)
New York Red Bulls players look on during Game Two’s penalty shot-out at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, November 4, 2023 (Credit: Mark Smith/USA Today Sports)

The New York Red Bulls’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday night. A ten round penalty kick shootout saw RBNY fall, 8-7, after playing to a 1-1 draw against FC Cincinnati. New York had multiple chances to force a third game against the Supporters’ Shield winners. Instead Cincy moves on to the Eastern Conference semifinals to play either New England or Philadelphia.

While the team earned its first playoff win since 2018, it is another early exit. The Red Bulls streak of 14 playoff appearances continues to not include an MLS Cup.

Head coach Troy Lesesne walked into the press conference room like he has many times since he took over mid-season. He explained that while the loss hurts, he’s proud of what the team did.

“This group had a choice. They had a choice to make on May 8th 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,” said Lesesne following the loss. “There is no quit in this group. And that’s something that you have to respect. And I don’t think that we get the respect that we deserve all the time.

“This is something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives and it’s an important learning lesson in their careers. So, they can always stay true to that. And if you default to that type of mentality, you’re going to be alright.”

With nearly a week to rest after Game 1, New York looked better on Saturday night at Red Bull Arena. Both Daniel Edelman and Dylan Nealis returned to the starting lineup, with the latter having an incredible showing.

In his first start since returning from core muscle surgery, the defender helped shut down FCC’s offense for much of the match. One moment in the 61st minute saw the Long Island native run nearly across the width of the field as Cincinnati attacked. He slid to get in front of a potential tying shot.

When asked by NYCSN about the younger Nealis, Lesesne talked about the player’s decision to get surgery earlier this year. Noting he could have kept playing, but the defender wanted to play at his best level even if it meant missing months of play.

“That type of mentality, to go through a surgery like he did, and get fit again and be able to compete for a starting spot, in a playoff match, and then go perform like he did tonight is a testament to Dylan and his mentality,” said Lesesne. “He represents our club in a really special way.”

The first half, stat wise, resembled last weekend’s game in Ohio. Cincinnati controlled possession and passing. But the New York midfield and defense negated most big break chances. RBNY led in total shots and felt more fluid with the ball.

On attacks, John Tolkin took the lead early. After going down in the box early on he responded with a free kick chance in the 7th minute that was headed away. Elias Manoel skied a shot in the 21st minute as both teams looked for an edge.

In a shock twist, Tom Barlow was the deciding factor in the first half. After muffing a chance to get a breakaway in the 36th, he fouled Yerson Mosquera just outside Cincy’s box in the 41st. A backpass to the defender saw Barlow run at him, with his leg seemingly extending to take him out. Many observers felt it was worthy of a straight red, but only got a yellow.

Instead four minutes later, chaos in the box allowed the forward a sliding shot toward keeper Roman Celentano. It was saved but the momentum kept it going into the net. Barlow now has three goals all-time, two this year, in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“I’ve grown a lot this season. It was an interesting one just the way it started off, we weren’t doing so hot, changing coaches. A lot of different stuff happened,” said Barlow after the game. Of note, his contract is up after this season with a one year option available. “But, it seems like every year there’s something that happens, and it’s all about continuing to get better every single day. Luckily Troy had a lot of trust in me this year, and I got a lot of playing time and tried to make the most of it. I felt like each game I got a little bit better. But yeah, just each day trying to get that 1% better and help the team win.”

Whatever MLS Coach of the Year finalist Pat Noonan said to his players at halftime, it worked. FCC nearly doubled its shot total while holding the ball for less time.

Aaron Boupendza had three shots in the final 45 minutes. Two went wide while the third in the 75th found paydirt. Right after Yerson Mosquera saw a yellow card, Boupendza countered. All alone, he got the ball on the left side and shot low past Carlos Coronel towards the right post. The play was set-up by an Andres Reyes error, his second one of the night. And another in a terrible postseason for the Columbian.

In the 90th minute, Luquinhas nearly cost the Red Bulls a chance at the PK shootout. Near the midfield and battling for the ball, the Brazilian stopped playing to argue with the referee. Cincinnati countered and forced Coronel into making a great save to keep the game tied.

Cincinnati looked to have scored a game-winner deep in second-half added time. A Luciano Acosta corner kick caused chaos in the box and seemingly got past the line. FCC players on the field and bench erupted in celebration even though the goal was disallowed on the field initially. The refereeing decision of a foul on Red Bulls goalkeeper Carlos Coronel was upheld on a video-assistant referee (VAR) review.

The visitors swarmed the referee after the final whistle and Matt Miazga was shown a yellow card. The villain of the night was applauded for this, after he’d heard “Chelsea Reject” and “Metro Reject” chants.

Also deep in stoppage time, Lesesne was shown a second yellow and forced to leave the pitch.

In the penalty kick shootout, both teams converted their chances in the first two rounds. FCC’s Santiago Arias had his attempt saved by Carlos Coronel in the top half of the third round. New York converted its next two and Cincy followed. John Tolkin had a chance to convert, like he had done on Decision Day and in the Leagues Cup. But his shot hit off the right post to force sudden death, tied 4-4.

The next three rounds saw both teams convert successfully. Matt Miazga gloated in front of the south ward after making his attempt, earning a yellow card. Interestingly, cards in the game and shootout are counted separately. So Miazga was not shown a red card. However he will miss his team’s next game due to accumulation.

In the ninth round, Coronel saved a shot by Yerson Mosquera but New York’s Serge Ngoma skied his chance over the bar. The second chance to win the game. The next round Júnior Moreno converted but Andrés Reyes had his shot saved.

After ten rounds, it was over. As Cincinnati celebrated in front of the South Ward, mocking them, bottles and a flag pole came raining down. After the game, FCC head coach Pat Noonan condemned the actions but said if players, like Miazga, celebrate like that “expect to have shit thrown at you”.

The Red Bulls return home… sometime next March or April in 2024.

In a way, the playoffs feel like an appetizer to the main attraction for the Red Bulls. The 2023-24 offseason might be one of the biggest in recent memory. Promises of big changes from front office staff and seemingly departing stars like JMi Deciding if Troy Lesesne did enough to earn a chance at a full season.

The year 2024 is only two months away. The New York Red Bulls have a lot to think about before then.

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