After 28 days, six international caps, and one hurricane-induced cancellation, the Red Bulls finally get to reestablish their home-field advantage in MLS play.
New York begins its playoff push on Saturday evening as they welcome the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps to Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls hope eight games is enough to clinch a playoff berth as New York needs a better result than the 1-1 draw they settled for against the 'Caps at Empire Field on May 28.
Hurricane Irene washed out New York's highly-anticipated clash against the Los Angeles Galaxy on August 27, leaving the Red Bulls with three weeks to think about their 3-3 draw against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. A double by Dane Richards dug the Red Bulls out of a two-goal deficit against the rebuilding Revs but left New York settling for its fourteenth draw of the season rather than the club's first win in a month.
Vancouver arrives on a rare high note after defeating the Houston Dynamo 1-0 at home on August 27, but that win did little to lift the worst club in MLS by points at 21. Shea Salinas slotted home a right-footed strike in the waning moments of the match to steal a win for the 'Caps, who have a winning record at home (4-3-5) but have yet to collect their first MLS regular season win on the road (0-10-4).
Inactivity helped New York (6-6-14, 32 pts) maintain control of a playoff berth while residing in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, just three points behind the third-place Philadelphia Union (8-7-11, 35 pts) and the final automatic conference playoff berth. The Dynamo (8-8-11, 35 pts) sits in fourth place and between the Red Bulls and the Union's berth.
Must Win. Of New York's eight remaining matches, only Saturday's against the 'Caps will transpire against a club without playoff aspirations. But you don't need to remind Red Bulls coach Hans Backe.
“It is a must win," said the typically stoic Backe to the New York Post. "It is definitely a must win at home. (We have) eight games to go, and the home games just need to be won. Everyone has to know that kind of pressure. It is a must win at home. You just need to be able to handle that kind of pressure.’’
Key Matchup: NY’s Right Side vs. Hassli. Only Toronto FC has fewer goals than the 27 netted by the ‘Caps in 2011, but that does not mean Vancouver lacks a scoring threat. French sriker Eric Hassli ranks fourth in scoring this season with 10 goals, trailing fellow countryman and Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry by a meager two goals. After Hassli and Camilo’s eight goals, no other ‘Caps player has more than two.
Meanwhile, New York entered their extended midseason break with questions about the capabilities of their back line, especially on the right side with recent, ineffective play by Rafael Marquez and an injury to Jan Gunnar Solli. Solli is expected to play on Saturday, but where is uncertain at the Norwegian winger may need to move into the midfield to replace the suspended Teemu Tainio or to left back to replace the injured Roy Miller. Chris Albright will assume whatever fullback vacancy is left by the Solli decision.
Hassli is dangerous anywhere in the penalty area, as evidenced by his breathtaking volley at Seattle earlier this season that continues to draw Goal of the Year proclamations. He sets up a shade left of center and does most of his damage in the heart of the penalty box near the spot. Solli, Albright, and, most importantly, Marquez will need to cut off any service to the ‘Caps designated player or risk seeing another highlight-worthy goal scored in their defensive territory.
Coming and Going. Even with three weeks’ rest, New York will not be at full strength against the ‘Caps. Roy Miller, who has played all but one minute of every game this season for the Red Bulls, will be out of action for the next two to three weeks after suffering an injury in his native Costa Rica’s friendly against Ecuador earlier this week. Frank Rost will join Miller on the sidelines as he recovers from a quadriceps injury that emerged on the flight home from the Emirates Cup in July and previously reared its head last October while the German ‘keeper played for Hamburg in the Bundesliga.
One glimmer of hope comes in the form of Luke Rodgers. Backe indicated earlier this week that Rodgers may return next week against F.C. Dallas but could see a few minutes this weekend against the ‘Caps.
Shallow End. Vancouver released defensive midfielder Wes Knight on August 31, which in and of itself isn’t a huge move as Knight was not a starter. However, that move took a chunk out of what little depth ‘Caps coach Tom Soehn had left at fullback. If Henry, Rodgers, or Juan Agudelo can show some forward momentum in the attacking third, it’s fairly certain that Soehn lacks the depth to stop it.
Two. That’s how many minutes a proposed tribute to honor the tenth anniversary of 9/11 will last during Saturday’s match. Fans will receive American flags upon entry into Red Bull Arena and are asked to raise them skyward between the 9th and 11th minutes of Saturday’s match to honor the lives affected by the terrorist attacks endured in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on a September Tuesday ten years ago.
MLSsoccer.com’s John Bolster recently recounted the first soccer match to take place in the greater New York City area following the September 11 attacks between the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and Los Angeles Galaxy – the spirit of which will once again be on display this weekend.