Sunday night was always going to be a tall task for D.C. United, given their recent history at Red Bull Arena. Behind the 8-ball following last week's first leg 1-0 loss at RFK Stadium to the New York Red Bulls, United were going to have to win in New Jersey, something they hadn't done since Nick DeLeon's winner in the playoffs in 2012.
Despite being very much alive for the entire game, United couldn't find the goal that would even the series against New York. And then in stoppage time, Bradley Wright-Phillips wrapped things up with United desperately pushing forward for a goal, winning the game 1-0 for New York, 2-0 on aggregate.
"I was encouraged for most of the game. They did everything I asked them," United manager Ben Olsen said after the game. "We fell a little short with the difficult part, and that was to score. To a man, I thought everyone had good performances, gave us everything, and went out in the right way."
The biggest reason why United will watch the rest of the playoffs at home? Their ability to finish off chances. In 180 minutes in the series, United managed just two shots on goal. When the opportunities were there for United to take on Sunday, they couldn't make the most of them.
United's performance in the first leg came back to haunt them in the second leg on Sunday afternoon. After failing to register a shot on target in the first leg, D.C.'s problems were compounded when Dax McCarty headed home a free kick to give the Red Bulls the advantage heading into the second leg.
While conceding a goal on Sunday wouldn't have completely ruined United's chances early on in the game, for a side that had only scored two goals on the road once this season, a clean sheet was a must. And for most of the game, United were able to stifle the Red Bulls from creating a bevy of chances, while finding a few opportunities at the other end.
"I thought the game plan worked to be honest. We shut down their possession in a way, and they were frustrated," United captain Bobby Boswell said. "We had a lot of looks. They were making last minute tackles, we were missing some close range shots. At the end of the day, over the two legs, we weren't able to get it done."
But after registering zero shots on target in the first leg, United only managed two in the second leg. Fabian Espindola forced a save from a tight angle in the second half, and Boswell redirected a weak header straight at Luis Robles.
There were chances throughout the game for United, but a lack of quality in front of goal meant their ultimate demise.
"I didn't think we created enough in the first game," Olsen said. That's as good as we've played here, and I thought it was a good night, we just fell short with the goal."
"I thought we had a chance all game. As long as it stayed 0-0, we had a chance," United attacker Chris Rolfe said. "We didn't create a lot of chances all season, but it didn't take a beautiful play for us to score. I was confident until their goal."
In the first half, Perry Kitchen had a close range shot blocked, Espindola sent a shot just wide from an outlet from Bill Hamid, and Rolfe volleyed wide after being set up from Espindola. The knowledge was there that there was a way past New York, at least to find one goal.
In addition to the shots on goal, United had openings in the second half. They just weren't there for the taking for United.
"Sometimes you go through streaks. Sometimes you score six goals in a game, sometimes you can't score any," Boswell added. "You got to get them when you get opportunities. We weren't able to do that, and they were."
New York's goal, the series clincher for the Red Bulls, came in stoppage time as United were piling forward, looking to keep their season alive. But Gonzalo Veron was able to snatch possession away in United's half, and found Wright-Phillips, who skipped around Bill Hamid's challenge to tap into the empty net.
The end of the season sees United face some questions ahead of February's series against Queretaro in the CONCACAF Champions League. For the second season in a row, United has failed to advance past the Eastern Conference semifinals, losing both times to the Red Bulls.
In addition, United has failed to win any of their past four home and away series in all competitions. Since beating the Red Bulls with DeLeon's late goal in 2012, United has lost to the Houston Dynamo, Alajuelense, and now the Red Bulls twice. In all four series, United has lost the first game, and failed to overturn the deficit in the second leg.
With several major contributors on the squad on the wrong side of 30, questions of how much more this side can achieve under the current set up will persist. Getting to the next level might just require changing out some of the old guard to get to the next step. Olsen conceded just as much after the game.
"Is this who we are? Are we peaked out? I don't know, it's a fair question, something we'll evaluate."