Things are about to get Real for a Red Bulls side bearing renewed postseason aspirations.
New York returns home on Wednesday to kick off at Red Bull Arena against red-hot Real Salt Lake. A go-ahead goal by Luke Rodgers and Frank Rost's clean sheet helped the Red Bulls restore a modicum of respect with a 1-0 win over FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park on Saturday, but New York is still smarting from a comprehensive 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on August 6 that reversed the goodwill of an Emirates Cup win in late July.
Real Salt Lake is rolling in recent weeks as a four-game winning streak has the Claret-and-Cobalt on the periphery of the Supporters' Shield race. Nat Borchers headed home a Kyle Beckerman free kick to convert the goal needed by RSL in a 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City at Livestrong Sporting Park last Saturday. RSL has scored six goals in that four-game regular season stretch, with Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio playing prominent roles in establishing the club's winning ways.
A win would help boost the Red Bulls (7-6-15, 36 pts) further into the playoff picture as they prepare for their final six matches of the regular season. D.C. United (8-8-10, 34 pts) and the Portland Timbers (10-12-6, 36 pts) are two MLS clubs in action Wednesday that hope to lay claim on the final wild card berth in New York's possession. Meanwhile, the third-place Philadelphia Union (9-7-12, 39 pts) and fourth-place Houston Dynamo (9-9-12, 39 pts) remain idle in the chase for the Eastern Conference's final automatic playoff berth.
Can't Find a Beckerman. If RSL coach Jason Kreis hopes for a repeat performance of his club's thrashing of the Red Bulls in August, he'll need to do so without the services of his team captain. Kyle Beckerman will watch Wednesday's match from the sidelines as he serves a one-game suspension for his accumulated yellow card total.
Kreis could turn to the newly-acquired Yordany Álvarez or Jean Alexandre as well as pull Will Johnson or Ned Grabavoy back into Beckerman's holding midfield role, but none of them can be expected to replicate the contributions of RSL's dynamic playmaker.
Beckerman may need the rest after appearing in all of the club's 26 regualr season matches this season in addition to CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Men's National Team commitments, but he also has one goal and two assist in the club's recent winning streak and also assisted on two of RSL's three goals scored against the Red Bulls in August. You don't just replace that production with anyone.
Key Matchup: Tainio vs. the Diamond. Kreis will undoubtedly call upon his vaunted diamond 4-4-2 formation at the outset of Wednesday's match to establish RSL's possession prowess and dictate a pace that passed the Red Bulls into submission in August. Once Kreis decides on how to replace Beckerman, he'll work quick to implement the game plan of providing service to Saborio, Fabian Espindola, or Luis Gil up top.
As Steve Davis points out over at MLSsoccer.com, Red Bulls holding midfielder Teemu Tainio dropped back a bit more than usual to support a patchwork back line that appeared porous in recent weeks. It worked well as New York withstood an FC Dallas side that generated three times as many attempts on goal as the Red Bulls but only completed three shots on target. Even if Tainio refrained from his usual linking role to provide support to the young center back tandem of Tim Ream and Stephen Keel, it helped subdue FCD's constant control of the run of play.
Why wouldn't Red Bulls coach Hans Backe try it again? RSL proved its passing prowess and finishing touch in the first leg of the regular season encounters, but Tainio missed that match due to flu-like symptoms. He can't help the Red Bulls forwards get behind one of the best back lines in MLS, but his presence can keep the Red Bulls on the defensive in the best sense of the word.
Comeback Kids. Except for an injury to Roy Miller that will keep the Costa Rican fullback on the sidelines, Backe will have a as close to a full roster as he's had in some time for Wednesday's match.
Rafael Marquez and Jan Gunnar Solli will return to action after serving one-game suspensions, while Thierry Henry is expected to be available after tending to an Achilles tendon injury that kept the French striker off the pitch against FC Dallas. Toss in successful encores for Rodgers as well as Rost and Backe has more answers than questions on his depth chart for a change.
New York won't be the only club getting good news from the medical staff, though. Argentine playmaker Javier Morales, who hasn't appeared in a regular season match for RSL since breaking his ankle in May, and RSL left back and Babylon, NY native Chris Wingert will travel with the Claret-and-Cobalt and may be available to Kreis in at least a substitute capacity.
Rost Redux? Rost earned due praise for his strong outing against FC Dallas, but lost in the hysteria is that last Saturday's match was his first since a poor showing against Real Salt Lake in August that ultimately came about due to the German shot stopper's right quadriceps tear.
He should be in better form for Wednesday's rematch, but the Red Bulls have four matches scheduled in the next 15 days. Backe may not let his third designated player mind the net for every minute of that stretch if he has any lingering concerns about Rost's recovery, which could open the door to a Bouna Coundoul spot start or substitution at a moment's notice. That likely won't come on Wednesday, but it could come more sooner than later.
Seven Up. While their ugly 1-0 win over FC Dallas is a win nonetheless, it remains to be seen what New York can do for an encore. Since April 30, the Red Bulls have averaged only one win in every seven regular season matches. Considering that New York only has six matches left on their 2011 schedule, they can't let that trend or anything close to it continue.