Two clubs mired in a May malaise will look for a positive result on Wednesday evening as the Red Bulls welcome the defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids to Red Bull Arena.
New York carries a three-game winless streak into Wednesday's match -- or four, if you count the Montreal Impact friendly on May 11 -- after Mehdi Ballouchy's stoppage time strike salvaged a 2-2 draw against Eastern Conference foe Houston Dynamo. The Red Bulls, who fell to second place with the Dynamo tie and a concurrent Philadelphia Union win, will look to restore their offensive might as Thierry Henry should return from a knee injury and presently carries a personal five-game point streak with him.
The Rapids will take the pitch with their own five-game unbeaten streak in tow -- with all four ties and one win against Eastern Conference teams -- after completing a scoreless draw at home against Toronto FC. That stretch coincides with the first five games of a 10-game suspension levied against Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan for a reckless tackle against Seattle Sounders forward Steve Zakuani on April 22. Colorado presently sits at sixth place in the Western Conference with 16 points from a 4-3-4 record thus far.
Shuffling the Deck. Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe will have his hands full with roster management as injury woes and the specter of the Gold Cup hang over the club. Right midfielder Dane Richards already departed for international duty with Jamaica earlier this week. Rafael Marquez could start his Gold Cup absence early by missing Wednesday's match due to a groin injury. Chris Albright (hernia) and Carl Robinson (knee) are also unavailable for the foreseeable future.
Though he can call on Ballouchy to pick up where Richards leaves off, Backe will need to starting mixing and matching his player combinations starting tonight rather than Saturday at Vancouver.
Key Matchup: Tim Ream vs. Rapids Forwards. After netting eight goals in their first three games in 2011, the Rapids have only scored multiple goals one time since April 3 and were held off the score sheet five times during that 11-game stretch. Due to injuries, the Rapids lacked the potent combination of forwards Conor Casey, Omar Cummings, and Caleb Foran and midfielder Jamie Smith over the stretch and have seen their offense suffer as a result.
Casey returned last week from a hamstring strain but needs more time to round into form. He also lines up next to an ineffective Quincy Amarikwa. Amarikwa has applied sufficient offensive pressure in the absence of the Rapids' foursome but tends to stifle his finishes by putting too much touch on the ball.
With Marquez out, Tim Ream will need to quarterback the back line and keep Casey and Amarikwa ineffective up top while supporting Rafa's replacement. It should be a busy night for Ream on the eve of his own departure for Gold Cup duty.
Kneed to Win. With the Gold Cup exodus expected soon, Henry acknowledged to the New York Post that Wednesday's match is a must-win for the Red Bulls.
“No matter how we play tomorrow, we’re going to have to get three points,’’ Henry said to the Post. “(The knee) is not quite there yet, but it is what it is. The three days helped me to e able to go over the pain, so I’m going to try tomorrow. It’s a must-win game for us."
Henry confirmed that he will step on the pitch against Colorado with a knee that's less than 100 percent to give New York a better chance to accrue three points. While Agudelo's disappearing act against the Dynamo only demonstrates Henry's importance, is it worth further risking any more knee aggravation?
Playing for Keeps. One notable exclusion from next month's Gold Cup tournament is Canadian 'keeper Greg Sutton, who did not receive the call to play for the Canucks. That means Sutton, who started against the Dynamo last Saturday and is expected to start against Colorado, will be available to Backe and the Red Bulls going forward. If Sutton carries on his solid play in net, it could cement Bouna Coundoul further down the depth chart despite strong performances in Sutton's absence.
Wagons East. Tonight's match against the Red Bulls will be Colorado's sixth consecutive game against an Eastern Conference team. It will also be the Rapids' fourth away game in the team's last five matches. While that should bolster the club's frequent flier miles, it's a lot of time playing away from the high altitude of Dick's Sporting Goods Park -- let alone their own beds and daily routines.