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Does the history of the MLS playoffs hold any lessons for D.C. United and their second leg against the New York Red Bulls?

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We look back in history for teams that lost a first leg 1-0 at home to see what, if anything, the past can teach United.

With D.C. United trailing the New York Red Bulls 1-0 after the home leg of their MLS playoff series, we think there might be some value in looking back on what has happened to MLS clubs finding themselves in that scenario. Does the past hold any hope for United? Let's find out:

2006 New York Red Bulls
First leg: Oddly enough, the first example we have involves these two clubs, with the Red Bulls falling at Giants Stadium to United via this Christian Gomez goal. It's worth noting that this was an era when MLS did not use the away goals rule, so any one-goal NYRB win would have sent this one to a 30 minute extra time period. It's not 100% the same scenario, but for our purposes it's close enough. Plus, I really wanted to include the Gomez goal.

Second leg: A Supporters Shield-winning United hadn't played their best in a while coming into the second leg, and a very even game saw NYRB take the lead in the 70th minute after Jozy Altidore - still only 16 at the time - headed in a free kick after shedding Facundo Erpen. Extra time beckoned, only for Gomez to shut that down with an 86th minute goal that caused RFK to erupt. This is back in the days when I'd take off running after a DC goal, and after Gomez scored I ended up about a section and a half away from where I had been standing. The good guys advanced 2-1 on aggregate.

2010 San Jose Earthquakes
First leg: What is it with the Red Bulls and this scenario? This time around, they beat the Quakes at Buck Shaw Stadium via a Joel Lindpere strike. Heading into the 2nd leg in Harrison, it looked like San Jose was in deep trouble. NYRB had given up less than one goal per game over the course of the season and were the top seed in the East, while San Jose were just a hair over one goal scored per game on the year. Throw in a cross-country trip, and the Quakes looked cooked.

Second leg: Bobby Convey, in what was likely the best game he ever managed on American soil, punched in a loose ball following a knockdown from Scott Sealy in the 6th minute. The Quakes started this game with a high press and peppered NYRB's box with crosses early, but the Red Bulls fought their way back to make this game a thriller. Juan Agudelo danced away from two markers to crash a shot off the post in the 39th minute before the game went crazy in a five-minute span late in the second half.

First, Convey - who was playing left back in this game, mind you - took a pass that was intended to be a 1-2 from Arturo Alvarez and turned it into a goal all on his own by spinning away from Tim Ream to rip a shot past Bouna Coundoul in the 76th minute. Two minutes later, Agudelo made Jason Hernandez look foolish before chipping a cross towards the doorstep for Juan Pablo Angel to nod past Jon Busch with ease. Away goals were still a thing of the future, so the match was on course for a 30 minute overtime period. That is, until Convey's pinpoint deep cross to the back post found a knifing run from Chris Wondolowski. Wondo did what Wondo does in MLS, flicking his header over Coundoul and in for an 81st minute series-winning goal.

2010 Seattle Sounders
First leg: A day after our last entry's first leg, the LA Galaxy went north to beat the Sounders 1-0 on Halloween at what was then Qwest Field. Edson Buddle gave the top-seeded Galaxy a first half lead, and from there LA suffocated Fredy Montero and the Sounders. Much like Quakes, Seattle appeared to be in serious trouble.

Second leg: They were in fact in serious trouble. Buddle repeated his first leg feat, nodding in a David Beckham corner in the 19th minute to double the aggregate lead. Set pieces continued to bedevil Seattle, as just 8 minutes later it was Omar Gonzalez beating an offside trap on a Beckham free kick to snap the ball past Kasey Keller. A crucial 67th minute save from Donovan Ricketts on Steve Zakuani in the 67th minute blocked Seattle from any realistic hope of a comeback. Zakuani did end up scoring, but his 86th minute goal was too little and far too late.

2011 New York Red Bulls
First leg: Yes, them again. As the 10th seed in the playoff field, NYRB beat FC Dallas away in a play-in game four days before hosting the Galaxy. Mike Magee's 15th minute goal was the difference in the first leg, and that wasn't the only problem. The Metros finished 21 points behind this Supporters Shield-winning LA side, and the Galaxy had given up just 28 goals in 34 games.

Second leg: NYRB was just not up to the job. Luke Rodgers shocked the Galaxy with a 4th minute goal, but aging goalkeeper Frank Rost simply did not look up to the task of preserving NYRB's hopes. Magee would strike again - yet another set piece goal, a concept that we may be revisiting at the end - in the 42nd minute to restore the Galaxy's advantage. Rodgers would get a virtually identical chance to the one he converted midway through the half, but he wasted the opportunity. 15 minutes later, Roy Miller - that's Roy "B&RU's favorite NYRB player of all time" Miller - would escape one penalty shout only to immediately commit a more thorough, obvious foul in the box. Landon Donovan slotted home the penalty, and the Galaxy advanced 3-1.

2012 LA Galaxy
First leg: Weird that two teams keep being involved, right? This time the Galaxy were on the losing side in the first leg, as Victor Bernardez stunned the crowd in Carson with a 94th minute free kick blast that squirted through the LA wall and then under the outstretched hand of Josh Saunders. This was the famous "Bash Brothers" Quakes team, a side that scored an amazing 72 goals in 34 games and had an unmatched ability to score late, crucial goals. LA had a high-powered attack themselves, so it looked like the second leg could get wild.

Second leg: Just 3 days later, the Galaxy made sure their comeback got started early. Robbie Keane's low 21st minute bullet punished a hesitant Quakes back four. Chris Wondolowski wasted a glorious chance 5 minutes later, and he would end up ruing it. In the 34th minute, a counter ended with Landon Donovan cleverly setting up Keane to round Jon Busch and make it 2-0. 5 minutes later, the lead was 3-0: Sean Franklin and Donovan combined on the right before Donovan's low cross was one-timed home following Magee's knifing run.

Needing 3 goals, the Quakes hit the post via Marvin Chavez before halftime but had to wait a long time before they'd go closer. A half-cleared 82nd minute corner was awkwardly scuffed back into the box by Justin Morrow, allowing Alan Gordon to poke home the first. That particular Quakes team was entirely capable of getting 2 more goals in the remaining 8+ minutes, but LA made their lead stand up to advance.

***

So what can we glean from the history books (in this case, that means Wikipedia, Youtube, and my own memories)?

  1. Two of the five teams that have faced United's plight ended up winning, including one team that got the job done at Red Bull Arena. 40% is a much higher percentage than I'd have expected, though obviously sample sizes are an important consideration here.
  2. In both incidents where the team down 1-0 advanced, it required 3 goals for the team in United's shoes to get the job done. That's, uh, not good news. Remember, United managed 9 goals in 17 MLS road games this year (and just 6 in their last 14).
  3. Set pieces are huge. 6 of the 21 goals involved in this story were set piece goals. This seems like good news given that United has scored as many set piece goals as anyone in MLS. However, it's important to remember that in DCU-NYRB games this season the Red Bulls have 3 set piece goals to just 1 for United.