HARRISON, N.J. – Behind a late goal from forward Omar Cummings and some questionable defending from the home team, the Houston Dynamo edged the New York Red Bulls, 2-1, at Red Bull Arena in the second leg of their Eastern Conference Semi-finals to progress 4-3 on aggregate. The strike from Cummings squirmed over the line by the thinnest of margins to send the Dynamo into the Eastern Conference finals and send New York crashing out at the first hurdle.
For the Red Bulls, the winners of the MLS Supporters Shield and the dominant team over the 120 minutes, it was another bitter playoff disappointment as their quest goes on for a first MLS Cup title.
And, after surrendering a two-goal lead in Houston in the first leg, the fact they threw away another here will only add to the pain of defeat. The Red Bulls were in control after Houston keeper Tally Hall’s blunder set up Bradley Wright-Phillips to open the scoring on 23 minutes. But 13 minutes later Ibrahim Sekagya handed Houston an equalizer that their play showed no signs of providing, as his errant pass was seized upon by Brad Davis.
“We pretty much gave them a gift, an early Christmas present,” was how midfielder Tim Cahill lamented the incident after the match.
Despite the circumstances in which they had been pegged back, the Red Bulls’ domination only increased in the second half. Yet, on the back of an outstanding performance by Hall to more than atone for his earlier error, the home side couldn’t find a winner. Proving once again that this so often is a sport of little logic, when extra time rolled around it was Omar Cummings, scorer of the equalizer on Sunday, who struck the decisive blow for Houston in the 104th minute.
Red Bulls coach Mike Petke had changed up his lineup from the first leg by bringing in Wright-Phillips at the expense of Peguy Luyindula and the former Manchester City youth product who had several chances in the opening 45 minutes. He should have put his side in front inside the first 15 minutes, but, through on goal from Thierry Henry’s pass, his finish went past the keeper but lacked power and was easily cleared.
The Red Bulls’ main attacking threat was from out wide and sure enough that was the source of the opening goal, although in a fashion few could have expected. Lloyd Sam’s cross from the right should have resulted in a comfortable take at his near post for Hall but the experienced stopper let it squirm from his grasp and Wright-Phillips pounced to finish well from the angle.
The goal bred confidence into the Red Bulls and they looked comfortable with their advantage. In the absence of Jamison Olave, Sekagya and Markus Holgersson were keeping things tight at the back. But 13 minutes after going in front, an inexplicable error gifted Houston an equalizer.
Under no undue pressure on the edge of his own box, Sekagya passed the ball straight to the feet of Davis and the United States international coolly slotted it past Luis Robles, with the Red Bulls keeper committed the other way.
Still, the hosts could have gone in at the break with the lead. Instead, Hall redeemed himself for his earlier error with a stunning reaction save to keep out an instinctive effort from Cahill from close range.
That incident was a sign of things to come after the break. Time and again the Red Bulls peppered the Houston goal but couldn’t find a way through. While Henry headed onto the bar and put a curling effort agonizingly wide after a sublime first touch, it was Hall who was the Red Bulls’ frustrater in chief.
Putting his earlier mistake firmly behind him, Hall wasn’t putting a foot wrong in the Houston goal and came up with a spectacular save that even exceeded his effort in the first half. Cahill elected to head back across goal rather than at the target but the ball deflected off a Houston head and looked poised for a third ignominious of for the evening until Hall, with lightning reflexes, dove full stretch to his right to keep the ball out and cause gasps of disbelief around Red Bull Arena.
When Henry’s overhead kick in the dying minutes trickled inches wide, the contest improbably was sent to extra time. In classic smash-and-grab fashion, it was Houston that struck.
Cam Weaver put a header back across goal from a right-wing cross, Cummings managed to get his foot onto it and direct the ball toward goal and Robles was unable to keep it out as the ball just crept over the goal line. There was to be no way back for the Red Bulls. Their season ends with a trophy but ultimately with more disappointment. Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City are now all that stand between Houston coach Dominic Kinnear and an improbable fifth MLS Cup appearance in eight seasons.