By Peter Schwartz
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One of the great scenes in the movie “The Natural” is when the hypnotist visits the lowly New York Knights baseball team to try and help them through their losing ways.
“There’s something inherently symptomatic about a losing team,” the hypnotist says. “Losing is a disease … as contagious as bubonic plague. Infecting one but infecting all. Ahh … but curable.”
Now the Red Bulls’ problem is not losing as they are currently on a franchise-record 12-game unbeaten streak heading into Saturday’s contest against the Montreal Impact at Red Bull Arena. The issue this season has been that on five occasions the Red Bulls have let two-goal leads vanish in the second half, including in this past Sunday’s 3-3 draw in Toronto.
If you look at the glass half full, the Red Bulls aren’t losing games. But if you take the glass half-empty approach, they have let 10 points in the standings slip away that would have them on top of the Eastern Conference. Instead, the Red Bulls (45 points) are tied with NYCFC for second place, two behind first-place Toronto.
So why can’t they hold a lead?
“It’s the little mistakes we created,” Red Bulls midfielder Felipe recently told WFAN.com. “I think as a group we have to be more alert and concentrate, but more than anything we have to stop giving leads away.”
The first two-goal lead that the Red Bulls surrendered was on July 17 in a 2-2 tie at Philadelphia. That was followed by a 2-2 draw in Los Angeles on Aug. 7, and a pair of 2-2 ties against DC United on Aug. 21 and Sept. 11.
The Red Bulls employ an attacking style that is fun to watch, but it also gives opponents chances for a counter attacks. When they go up by two, the Red Bulls could make life much easier on themselves by getting some insurance.
“With a 2-0 lead, you always have a chance to score the third goal and the fourth goal,” said Felipe, who has five goals in 29 games this season. “We need to start closing games.”
In hockey, there is a feeling that the hardest lead to protect is a three-goal advantage. In soccer, it’s believed that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous. There is this feeling that complacency tends to creep in because a two-goal lead means the match should be over.
That, of course, depends on who you talk to.
“I never subscribed to that theory,” said Shep Messing, the Red Bulls’ MSG Network analyst. “I’d always rather be up 2-0 instead of 1-0.”
While the blown leads are certainly eye opening, the Red Bulls can certainly take solace in the fact that they are not losing games. Every point counts and the Red Bulls are, for the most part, playing very well against some very good teams that they could face come the playoffs.
“I’m not bothered as much as everyone else regarding these five games where wins turned into draws,” Messing said. “I look at the positive way the team is playing, especially going on the road in L.A., Columbus and Toronto and scoring two, two and three goals away from home.”
In a further examination of the blown leads, the Red Bulls switched to five in the back in four out of the five games, but stayed in attack mode during the Sept. 11 home match against DC. Any way you slice it, the Red Bulls are not closing out games and that practice has to change.
It’s simply a matter of effort and communication.
“Every guy on the field has to look at himself and say I know what I can do against this guy and look around the field and every guy has to have the same mentality,” Felipe said.
Had the Red Bulls held on for the win in Toronto last week, they would have clinched a playoff spot and they would have also moved into first place by themselves in the Eastern Conference. This Saturday in Harrison, New Jersey, they have another shot to punch their postseason ticket against Montreal, a team that would be the No. 5 seed in the East if the playoffs started today.
The Red Bulls and Impact have split two prior meetings this season, but New York is 6-0 lifetime against Montreal at home. In fact, Red Bull Arena has been just like Kansas for the Red Bulls against just about every team this season, as they’ve clicked their heels to a 10-2-2 record on their home field.
Felipe has to feel pretty good about the Red Bulls’ chances of beating the team that he played for from 2012-’14.
“Whenever you play against a team that’s a former club, it’s always great,” Felipe said. “More than anything, we need those three points to keep moving forward to our goals for the season and to be in the top spot for the playoffs.”
With just six points separating the top four teams (Toronto, RBNY, NYCFC, and Philadelphia), the Eastern Conference playoffs figure to be very intriguing. With four games left, the Red Bulls, despite all the squandered leads, are in a position to finish first or second and avoid the first-round knockout game.
“Anything can happen,” Felipe said. “We are in good position, but you have to go into those games with the right mentality. We are a strong team and we’re going to be ready for every game.”
Throughout this season, the Red Bulls have enjoyed some ups and downs. There have been times when they have looked like an elite club that can win the MLS Cup and there have been instances that have left you just wanting to scratch your head. But at the end of the day, if they can keep things together when they have the lead in the second half, the Red Bulls can be very dangerous.
“The Red Bulls are a team that, come playoff time, nobody in the East will want to play,” Messing said.
If a hypnotist addressed the Red Bulls, he would say “letting two-goal leads slip away is a disease … as contagious as the common cold. Ahh .. but curable, if everyone can just focus and finish what they start.”
As Roy Hobbs would say “let’s play ball”… make that “let’s play soccer.”
At least the Red Bulls wouldn’t have to worry about the lights exploding at Red Bull Arena.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NewYorkRedBulls and Felipe @FELIMARTINS23