UPDATE: Hans Backe was officially dismissed Friday afternoon. Former MetroStars and Red Bulls defender Mike Petke, who has been an assistant to Backe since last year, takes charge in the interim. And so it begins.
HARRISON, N.J. - The 2012 edition of the New York Red Bulls represented the 17th attempt to bring a Major League Soccer championship to a team from America's largest media market.
The stars seemed to both literally and figuratively be aligned this year. Thierry Henry had a formidable strike partner in Kenny Cooper, and the summer arrival of Tim Cahill bolstered an already talented set of attacking midfielders.
Notice how I wrote those first two paragraphs in the past tense.
For as has been the case with all of the 16 seasons before this one, this year's campaign ended empty-handed. And as has also been the case many times over the years, New York was bounced from the playoffs by its oldest and fiercest rival.
Thanks to an 88th minute goal from rookie Nick DeLeon, D.C. United dealt the Red Bulls a 1-0 loss at Red Bull Arena, and claimed the Eastern Conference semifinal series by a 2-1 aggregate score.
New York had plenty of opportunities to score, from a three-shot chance in the game's early minutes to a free kick from 19 yards out straight in front of goal in second-half stoppage time.
Most prominent of all, there was a penalty kick won in the 69th minute when D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid tripped up an onrushing Kenny Cooper. Hamid was rightly sent off, and New York found itself with the perfect opportunity to exorcise its demons.
When Cooper slammed the penalty past substitute goalkeeper Joe Willis, the sparse but vocal crowd at Red Bull Arena erupted. Their joy was short-lived, though, as multiple players - including Thierry Henry - had clearly encroached into the 18-yard box before Cooper struck the ball.
So the penalty had to be retaken, and of course Willis saved the second attempt.
The metaphor of having two of every animal in Noah's Ark comes to mind, especially given the crazy weather that has hit the New York area lately. Two games played (with two own goals in the first one), two saved penalties, two D.C. red cards, two fan bases that traveled en masse to each stadium.
And of course, two freakish winter storms that wrought all kinds of havoc on the New York area throughout the series. First, Hurricane Sandy forced a swap of the order of the two games in the series. Then a blizzard forced the postponement of the second leg for a day, as the continuous accumulation of snow at Red Bull Arena left the field unplayable.
Yet somehow, 300 of the nearly 700 D.C. fans who made the trip north on Wednesday did so again Thursday.
And somehow, in the final seconds of the final minutes of the final game of the series, New York got one last chance to save itself.
In the 95th minute, Thierry Henry stood over a free kick right on the arc of the 18-yard box. Everyone in the stadium presumed to know what was coming next: a chance for Henry to be the hero.
But the highest-paid player in MLS never touched the ball. Left back Roy Miller did instead, and he sent it halfway up the stands into the Empire Supporters Club. Henry's head dropped, and his face wore that all-too-familiar look of distraught sadness.
Thus did New York lose; thus did New York's season end; thus did the winds of upheaval begin to swirl along the Passaic River.
It is well-established by now in Major League Soccer that the most consistent teams are the most successful. Year after year, the Red Bulls (née the MetroStars, and in many ways still carrying their spirit) have proven that principle by being exactly the opposite.
It is clear that change is coming again, and that change needs to come. Manager Hans Backe is likely gone, as are Cooper and Sébastien Le Toux. Tempestuous defender/midfielder/serial accumulator of astonishingly crass red cards Rafael Márquez is likely on his way out too.
There was another Márquez dismissal last night, by the way, thanks to a yellow card in each half. The second came after a late, studs-up tackle from behind on Chris Pontius in the 74th minute. If Márquez's next ejection is a permanent one from the Red Bulls roster, it will be a fitting end to his New York telenovela.
For as much as the Red Bulls get laughed at by the rest of MLS, there is a very real and serious question about where the club goes from here. It demands an answer simply for the reason that any soccer team with as consistent a history of failure must at some point make a genuine attempt to do things right. That applies regardless of media market or star power.
Everyone talks about Henry, Cahill and Márquez, but the player I most wanted to talk to Thursday night was Joel Lindpere. He is to the Red Bulls as Paul O'Neill was to a certain era of the Yankees: dependable, straightforward and honest, but never receiving the full recognition he deserved for his consistent effort.
Lindpere was clearly distraught as a cluster of reporters gathered around his locker. He didn't really want to talk, but he stiffened his spirit and did so anyway.
"It's normal with the Red Bulls that there are changes all the time," he said. "I've been here for three years and playing [expletive] every game, and I have won nothing... [Maybe] it's better to be bottom of the league for a couple years and then go fresh and win with some luck."
The Estonian seemed to be on the verge of tears. They never came, but otherwise there was no hiding the degree of his emotions.
"I don't want to think about football now, " he said. "I just want to go home and see my family, and I don't want to show up at all."
Henry was more willing to talk, but was equally at a loss for words.
"During the whole season, I think that's the game we deserved to win the most," he said. "I don't recall all season creating that amount of chances against a good team in this league... Going out in this way is cruel."
Backe had plenty of words. But in the heat of postgame immediacy, he had few answers.
When asked whether he thought this was his last game as the Red Bulls' coach, Backe responded, "We'll have to wait and see with that."
He added that he has received no indication from the team's upper management as to what his future holds. And when asked how, if it was his last game, he would judge his time in New York, Backe answered, "I think I want to sleep on it before I give any answer for that."
If he goes, Backe will be the fifth New York manager whose final game was a loss D.C. United. The previous four were Carlos Quieroz (1996), Carlos Alberto Parreira (1997), Alfonso Mondelo (1998) and Bob Bradley (2005).
While New York sulked, D.C. celebrated. The Red Bulls' locker room was almost funereal in its silence, but D.C.'s had booming music and lots of chatter.
For United manager Ben Olsen, the moment was especially sweet. He beat the MetroStars in the playoffs twice as a player (2004 and 2006) and has now beaten the Red Bulls as a coach. Now the most decorated team in MLS history is back in the Eastern Conference final for the first time in six years.
I asked the Middletown, Pa., native whether it feels better to have beaten New York as a player or a coach.
"Better as a coach," he said. "I had the luxury to do this a couple of times as a player - for me, this is really special."
The moment was also sweet for United captain Dwayne De Rosario. He knows full well about the D.C.-New York rivalry, having been traded from the Red Bulls to United in June of last year. Though he has not played since September due to a knee injury, De Rosario was as emotionally invested in the night as anyone else.
"It feels great to be on this side - the winning side," he said. "That [win] was a great show of class and character."
The refrain is a familiar one: D.C. United as the winning side, New York as the losing side. It is the case again now. United are headed to the Eastern Conference final, and the Red Bulls are headed home.
Another cold, contentious winter looms in the shadow of Gotham.