Is home where the heart is for the New York Red Bulls?
21 days, three matches, one MLS All-Star Game, and one trade with a conference rival later, the Red Bulls finally return home to Red Bull Arena on Saturday for a conference clash with the Chicago Fire. A second-half goal by Guatemalan midfielder Marco Pappa helped Chicago save a draw in the first leg of their regular season encounters on June 25, while the Fire took offense to New York's decision to effectively punt their US Open Cup quarterfinal match at Toyota Park away by decimating the shorthanded side of baby Bulls with a 4-0 win on July 12.
New York looks to claim their first victory in over a month after a discouraging 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake last weekend deflated the club's spirits following their Emirates Cup win. RSL captain Kyle Beckerman fueled the Claret-and-Cobalt attack against a Red Bulls side that failed to recover from its own mistakes and lost not just the game but also starting goalkeeper Frank Rost and Norwegian winger Jan Gunnar Solli to injury.
Chicago continues to reestablish a club identity that once haunted all Eastern Conference clubs by fostering its speedy attack led by Pappa, Dominic Oduro, and Diego Chaves. The Fire arrive at Red Bull Arena still plagued by its season-long inconsistency, most recently following a 1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union with a 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps last week.
Sporting Kansas City (7-7-9, 30 pts) remains tied with Red Bulls (6-6-12, 30 pts) for third place, while four points separate the two clubs from the conference-leading Columbus Crew (9-7-7, 34 pts). The second-place Union (8-5-9, 33 pts), who announced the signing of the American phenom Freddy Adu on Friday, also stand between the Red Bulls and first place.
The New Guy. New York announced on Friday that it acquired Guadeloupean defensive midfielder Stéphane Auvray in a trade with conference rival Sporting Kansas City. Sporting KC received New York’s natural 2013 second round MLS SuperDraft pick as compensation.
Auvray held down the defensive midfield role for Sporting KC (then the Kansas City Wizards) in 2010 until a nagging knee injury appeared to weaken his form down the stretch. Still in the club's plans for 2011, he failed to regain that 2010 form and saw his playing time dwindle until he departed to captain the Guadaloupe side in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June. His playing time did not return after the Gold Cup, leaving the discontent midfielder sitting out from practices until Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes found him a new home.
Now, Auvray arrives at Red Bull Arena to a club still grasping at playoff straws and with an opening in the midfield necessitated by the nagging injuries and illness plaguing Teemu Tainio and the ineffectiveness of Dax McCarty. What will he contribute to the playoff chase?
Key Matchup: Dane Richards vs. Chicago's Back Line. The trio of Thierry Henry, Joel Lindpere, and Juan Agudelo remain the only active Red Bulls to net a goal in regular season play since June. Agudelo mustered New York's only shot on goal against Real Salt Lake last weekend, creating further questions about where to look for a much-needed offensive outburst.
That's where Dane Richards comes in. The Jamaican midfielder missed last Saturday's match while serving a one-game suspension for a red card and left New York lacking pace on the right flank that Richards consistently delivers -- especially after Solli left the game due to injury.
Richards now returns to a Red Bulls attack that will look to exploit the absence of Chicago defender Cory Gibbs, who will miss Saturday's match with a groin injury. New York knows what to expect from Henry, Lindpere, and Agudelo, but what it gets from the return of Richards may be the catalyst for the Red Bulls' stagnant offense.
Bouna Time is the Right Time. With Rost missing action on a week-to-week basis due to a right quadriceps tear, Bouna Coundoul is expected to get his first MLS start since collecting consecutive draws against the Fire on June 26 and San Jose Earthquakes on July 2. Coundoul also started for the baby Bulls squad in the US Open Cup quarterfinal match against the Fire.
Coundoul's familiarity with facing the Fire this season may ease the loss of Rost to a Red Bulls squad that went all-in on their third designated player. Coundoul just needs to show his resiliency from jet lag after making a round trip to Dakar this week for international duty as well as shaking off any disappointment from his role in his native Senegal's 2-0 upset loss to Morocco on Wednesday.
Second to None. Chicago has scored the second-fewest number of goals of any MLS club with 24, just one more than the league-worst 23 goals by New England. That comes despite taking the third-most shots (315) and fifth-most shots on goal (106), indicating a trouble for the Fire of being able to hit 'em where they ain't -- but at the goalmouth.
For a Fire side built on speed, it remains susceptible to having their attack broken up by traffic -- giving newcomer Auvray and McCarty along with the Red Bulls back line an added incentive to pick up their own pace and take a few balls away from the visitors.
Three to Tango. While much has been made of the Red Bulls troubles of late, they can still boast a healthy 5-2-4 record at home. New York's last three wins all came at home, though one must go all the way back to an April 30 win over Sporting Kansas City to complete that trifecta.