It was classic game. It had everything. Physical play. Individual excellence. Hot goaltenders. It also had overtime and penalty kicks. The New York Red Bulls survived a war with the Philadelphia Union 5-3 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie in regulation to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. This game had it share of heroes with medals galore to distribute. Plenty of purple hearts as both teams saw a number of players limp off the battlefield. But the medal of honor tonight went to Ryan Meara, who played as many games this year for the top flight team as Head Coach Jesse Marsch, zero. He made the most of his time getting a seasons worth of work in a single evening. But he was up to the task.
“I approach every game like I’m going to be the man that’s going to be playing on the weekend,” Meara said, “Then when a night like this comes I just slide in and I’m ready.”
Ryan set the tone in the nets even as two of his three defenders suffered injuries. His two save sequence 19 minutes into the game hinted to the kind of night he was going to have. He blocked a breakaway attempt from Fabrice-Jean Picault followed by a deflection of the rebound over the crossbar. These two would be linked all evening as Meara stopped him again and again. When Aurelian Collin left with a pulled hamstring it was a concern but Connor Lade came in and had the game of his life. He not only held his own against the bigger and quicker forwards of the Union, playing first right then left back, but he pushed balls into the attacking zone and set up opportunities highlighted by brilliant back to back feedings to Bradley Wright-Phillips that by all means should have found pay dirt. He even had scoring threats of his own.
“I always say Connor has a heart of a lion and I don’t take him for granted,” Marsch said, “He’s been here the longest and that’s perfect. He is the perfect moniker for who were are.”
The Red Bulls came out with a new formation aimed to support more attackers and this benefited Sean Davis tremendously as he was effective in the offensive end setting up the pass to Wright-Phillips in the center of the box that led to Bradley’s flip pass to the right to a wide open Red Bull captain Sacha Kljestan in the 42nd minute which not only put New York up 1-0 but justified the pressure they were assembling yet unsuccessfully to that point.
It plays off the strength of every guy and the midfielders get the ball and that’s who you want handling the ball, it’s an option going forward,” Felipe said.
Another defender Aaron Long went down next in the 76th minute and Daniel Royer was brought on to continue the assault. Ryan Meara was not only good but lucky as the Union’s C.J Sapong either hit the post or shot wide on quality chances as they started to find their stride despite losing two players themselves. Four minutes remained in the game and it appeared the Reds were on the verge of victory but Jack Elliott found Roland Alberg and he rocketed one out of the reach of the outstretched arm of Meara to even matters and take this contest into overtime.
“It wound up like everybody was cramping up and we had almost no defenders,” Marsch said, “It has not always been easy to convince him (Meara) that this is the right place for him. The USL was a good experience for him. He used it to get better and we see how good in training he is.”
Even with the news that the man who is in the alpha stop in goal, Luis Robles, had just signed a multi-year contract extension, Ryan Meara continued the road of the hero’s journey with a clear mind on the task at hand. He deflected a short free kick from his right side that had a lot of mustard on it. Picault was alone on a breakaway but was stuffed at the point of attack on the final play of the first 15-minute extra time period. He was even better in the second 15-minute session as he forced Marcus Epps to shoot high on a breakaway. An offside ended an apparent goal by Philadelphia and the whistle sounded for penalty kicks.
“Once the game get’s going and you’re in the moment, in the zone, I don’t have a mind on the penalties,” Meara said, “The pressure is on the shooters. If I can make a save or two you’re the man.”
The Red Bulls were perfection on their kicks as Sal Zizzo, Gonzalo Veron, Daniel Royer and Sacha Kljestan all hit their kicks. For Philadelphia it was two for two until the one save was made. Meara going to his right and deflecting it and watching it strike his foot and ricochet back to hit the post but safely away. Leading 4-3 and down to their final kick we saw Felipe, who nearly was substituted in the overtime approach. But Marsh did not regret the decision that never was as Felipe calmly put it past John McCarthy and the elation of a team running in masse was a thing of beauty. Pride won this one.
“They got to know and they have to keep believing that every time we step on the field we give everything we can,” Felipe said. “I was confident when we got to penalties we would be alright,” Meara said, “We’re purely clinical. I was confident I could make one save for us and fortunately it worked out that way.”
“To find a way to a result was big for us. It just feels like the kind of year we have to earn every inch. We can’t be afraid of that,” Marsch said, “I said to the group before the PK’s we should go in with concentration and focus and know we got a champion in net.”
The 2016 USL champion goalie was all that and more as the Red Bulls are now three wins away from a trophy in a year when they started with eyes on another kind of trophy.