Sometimes the narrative wins. Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena was certainly one of those times.
The Houston Dynamo, led by Dominic Kinnear, have built a reputation of peaking in the playoffs and finding ways to advance to MLS Cup no matter how weak their team appears on paper, what goes wrong or what team stands in their way. Somehow, some way, they get to MLS Cup and this year they are hoping to make it a third straight appearance in the final.
The New York Red Bulls have 18 years of losing in their blood. There was hope that winning the Supporters' Shield this season, the first trophy in the club's history, would change things, but blowing a 2-0 lead in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal against Houston brought back the memories of nearly two decades of failures.
It looked like fortune might finally shine upon the Red Bulls when Tally Hall spilled a cross so Bradley Wright-Phillips could tap it in, but that just proved to be false hope for New York. Ibrahim Sekagya's terrible giveaway gifted Brad Davis the equalizer and then in extra time, Omar Cummings struck to win it for the Dynamo.
Another New York season had ended in disappointment and Houston were trudging along, like always.
Five questions answered
Before each game in the MLS Cup Playoffs, we ask five questions. Here's how the game answered them.
1. Can NY cope without Jamison Olave?
The Red Bulls were without their best central defender because he was shown a red card in the first leg and they paid for it. It is unlikely that he could have anything about the Dynamo's first goal because Sekagya's giveaway was as good as a perfect through ball for Davis, but he might have prevented the winner. When the ball was nodded back across goal for Cummings to finish, Olave, being the excellent defender that he is, could have cleared the ball away. That's speculative, of course, but it's possible, just as it's possible that the entire defense is better with their leader back there because they looked shaky when tested without him.
2. How much gas does Houston have left in the tank?
Extra time should have been the Red Bulls' chance to run the Dynamo off the field. After all, Houston was playing their sixth match in 14 days, a stretch that included four long flights. But New York never took advantage of Houston's weary legs. Several Dynamo players appeared to be cramping in extra time, but once they got a goal, the Red Bulls never got another great chance at goal. Houston may have run out of gas, but they didn't pay for it.
3. Which Will Bruin will show up?
To call Bruin invisible would be kind. He did not register a shot and rarely got even a decent view of goal to go along with some wayward passing, yet somehow, the Dynamo still won. It is probably because Sekagya gifted them a goal and Cummings replaced Bruin are 64 minutes, but Houston isn't going to complain.
4. Who will take the bulk of possession?
Both the Dynamo and Red Bulls are deadly on the counterattack so whoever had possession was supposed to be at a disadvantage, but it didn't play out that way. New York won the possession battle with 53% of the ball, but both teams did an excellent job maintaining shape when they went forward and tackled well up the field after giving the ball away to minimize the counterattacks. In the end, it was mistakes and scrambles in front that decided the game, not who had the ball and who countered best.
5. Can Mike Petke match wits with Dominic Kinnear?
Petke showed guts by bringing Lloyd Sam and Wright-Phillips into the starting lineup and both paid off. Lloyd was dangerous all match and it was his cross that Hall couldn't hang onto, allowing Wright-Phllips to bang home the rebound, but it wasn't enough. Brandon Barklage, who Petke had to bring in for Olave slipped on the game-winning goal and Kinnear's insertion of Cummings proved a masterstroke, just as it had in the first leg. Petke wasn't bad, but a manager doesn't have to be bad to be out-foxed by the steady Kinnear. Just ask a decade of MLS coaches.
What we didn't expect
Omar Cummings to be Houston's savior: This was supposed to be a lost year for Cummings. Three knee injuries, a groin injury and a hamstring injury left the Jamaican glued to the training table for much of the season. He made just 11 appearances this season, 10 of them as a substitute and had nary a single goal or assist to show for his efforts, but Kinnear went to him twice against the Red Bulls and it paid off. In the first leg, it was Cummings who drew the red card on Olave before scoring the tying goal then on Wednesday, he netted the 104th minute tie-winner. Not bad for a guy whose season was written off months ago.
The big takeaway
Dominic Kinnear has plenty of magic left: The Dynamo had absolutely no business knocking the Red Bulls out. They were playing their fifth match in 14 days, New York was the league's best team, Bruin was in terrible form and their central defense can be a mess. So when Hall's terrible mistake handed New York the lead on a silver platter, Houston was supposed to just go away. Instead, they came right back and, even if it took some help from Sekagya, they got an equalizer. Then Hall made up for his mistake with a pair of remarkable saves to keep the Dynamo alive even while getting horribly outplayed before Cummings arose from the dead to win it. This Dynamo team was supposed to lose. The only problem was that Kinnear's teams don't lose in the playoffs (at least not until MLS Cup).
Man of the Match
Omar Cummings: Wednesday's match lacked standout performers. Hall was probably most responsible for getting the Dynamo to extra time, but he also made the mistake that gifted the Red Bulls their goal so that's not really true, no matter how many great saves he made. Davis only had to finish a chance that was gifted to him and everyone else on the team had mistakes that needed to be covered by a teammate at one point or another. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls were shaky at the back without Olave and wasteful in front. That leaves Cumming, who got nearly an hour's work as a substitute and scored the match-winner. It wasn't the prettiest goal, but the Dynamo are heading to the Eastern Conference final and it's thanks to the Jamaican's tally.
The Dynamo have a familiar foe waiting for them in the Eastern Conference final -- Sporting Kansas City. The two teams have squared off in each of the last two years with Houston coming away winners both times. Kinnear has had Peter Vermes' number, as he has the number of most managers in the league, and while the Dynamo are the underdog, that's not exactly new for them. They were the underdogs in 2011 and 2012, yet they were the team playing in MLS Cup. The Red Bulls will get a good look at the two-legged tie from their couches.