The anxiety of waiting for a New York-New York conference final

They're the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, but as Graham Parker writes, first-leg performances have dimmed hopes the Red Bulls and NYCFC will meet in the next round.

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This wasn’t in the script.

Two New York soccer teams in the MLS playoffs for the first time, and not only that but seeded No. 1 and 2 in the East to create the potential of an epic Conference final series. Add in Dallas crumbling in its Conference semifinal and Colorado being tasked with winning from behind for the first time this year to advance from its semifinal, and the stars look like they’re aligning for New York hosting MLS Cup. Add in the possibility of LA Galaxy or Seattle arriving in the other half of the draw, and you can imagine the degree of discreet excitement at the league offices about a very telegenic climax to the MLS season.

But both New York teams lost road games to opponents playing on short rest last weekend. And while history shows that home teams have overcome the Red Bulls 1-0 deficit to Montreal nine times out of 17 in second legs, you have to go back to 2003 for a team overcoming the 2-0 deficit New York City FC faces in its home leg against Toronto. Never mind a New York final, at this rate it’s looking odds on we’ll see an all Canadian conference final, and MLS Cup in another time zone.

So instead of this weekend being a dry run for another two epic weekends of subway series intensity, this could be the last stand of New York’s aspirations in the competition.

Even the scheduling appears downbeat. When it became apparent both teams would be playing on the same day for once, it suggested the tantalizing possibility of journeying between the two for a unique doubleheader. But with the games kicking off consecutively, that’s impossible, and it’s also possible that attendance at Red Bull Arena in particular will be hit. It’s certainly more likely that NYCFC will cannibalize the Red Bulls’ potential share of neutrals rather than the other way around, even with the odds being more stacked against the team on the New York side of the Hudson River.

The ‘That’s So Metro’ history

The current Red Bulls generation has been here before, of course — the 2013 Shield winners were eliminated at Red Bull Arena by a Houston team they’d dominated all year; the 2014 team squandered its opening home leg against New England and could never claw back its Conference final deficit, while last year another Supporters Shield-winning side conceded after eight seconds in Columbus and was chasing the Conference final for the rest of the series —including the obligatory futile last stand at Red Bull Arena.

The stadium has been the foundation of the Red Bulls’ regular-season success in recent years, and can be intimidating and noisy when full, but it’s also been the sight of much heartbreak, and so much about that first leg in Montreal had the shape of historic first legs that come back to bite New York. There was the pointless yellow card picked up by Felipe, for example — the type of innocuous moment that comes back to bite teams trying to make runs through a forced-parity field, where tiny margins change games. There was Bradley Wright-Phillips’ point-blank miss at one end, and Matteo Mancosu’s arrow into the top corner at the other end. And there was the worrying sight of Sacha Kljestan being kept peripheral for much of the afternoon.

The damage, you felt, was not so much Mancosu’s goal, but the Red Bulls’ failure to score one themselves. You could see the Red Bulls scoring, maybe even early, this Sunday, and perhaps getting a second, even in the first half, if things go right. But you can also see Montreal staying patient and getting a goal on the counter to set up a frantic finale. And if the Impact does, the sound you hear over the TV microphones will be one of a crowd groaning in recognition.

So much of the Jesse Marsch project has been about making New York forget its history — focusing game-to-game with almost superstitious intensity, especially during the recent unbeaten run that ended abruptly last weekend.

But while the late blips that blew leads became less damaging as the season went on, there was still a sense that there was something brittle about the Red Bulls — they could play through any defense in the league on their day, but no lead seemed safe. Senior members of the team have spoken about wanting to emulate the swagger and sense of entitlement that marks LA Galaxy at its peak, but where even a non-vintage Galaxy side enters the playoffs expecting to manage its way to MLS Cup, each Red Bulls’ campaign is a battle with their historical neuroses.

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