For Red Bulls and Fire, There Can Be No Second Best in Second City

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

Red Bulls logoBradley Wright-Phillips spent Sunday out on the town Manhattan in with his wife, keeping tabs on the progress of the Red Bulls‘ game at D.C. United. Sacha Kljestan was home watching the game with teammate Aaron Long.

“Together we were looking at the updates like every five minutes,” Kljestan said. “First it was play NYC, great; then Atlanta, a tough one with 70,000; then finally Chicago, which is great. The range of emotions was interesting. In the end it all played out.”

The result in Washington, in United’s final game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, was superfluous for the Red Bulls. The only unknown was the opponent in the knockout round of Major League Soccer‘s playoffs. Now, for the third time this year, the Red Bulls will engage in the Dax Derby — another game against the team’s former captain Dax McCarty, who was jettisoned by the club last January.

The inevitable questions were coming, and Coach Jesse Marsch was ready for them after training on Monday as his club endures a quick turnaround for Wednesday night’s match (8:30 p.m. Eastern; FS1, Unimás) at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.

“If I reflect back on it, it was always a hard thing to do,” Marsch said about the decision that upset many of the club’s most committed fans. “It’s still a hard thing to think about. But for me it was the right thing to do. The way Tyler [Adams] and Sean [Davis] have blossomed this year makes me feel good about the fact that we needed to make room for these guys. Dax has been really good this year, with the Fire and going to the national team. What happens in this series has nothing to do with that.”

The Red Bulls are 2-0 in knockout-round games, but are only 4-15-9 at Chicago. In the series between the teams, which dates to the Fire’s entry into MLS in 1998, Chicago holds a 26-17-12 advantage. In the two games this season, New York came away with an emotional 2-1 win at Red Bull Arena in McCarty’s first game back; then played to a hard-fought 1-1 draw on Sept. 9.

If the Red Bulls should win the match they would advance to the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto FC, which won the Supporters’ Shield as the league’s top team with a record 69 points over the 34-game regular season.

“The pity about the playoffs is that in the end only one team is happy,” Kljestan said. “After every series one team’s season is over and it’s sad, one moves on. It’s going to be a bummer because one of us is going home and I hope it’s Dax.”

The Red Bulls have tasted bitter postseason disappointment the past two years, finishing in first place in the conference each time before being ousted, first in the conference finals (2015) and the semifinals last year.

“I think that any season it is about mentality,” Marsch said. “What’s been good about us is that it’s been a test in that we’re a bit of a new team. We went on an Open Cup run [losing in the final at Kansas City]. There’s been different trials — injuries, formation changes and managing difficult moments.

“It’s a big challenge, a massive challenge. It will be a big hurdle if we can get through and can build more moment and give ourselves a chance. We’re excited.

“In previous years I think we were a little more anxious and nervous. This group is excited for a big challenge. Youthful fearlessness will pay off for us.”

The Red Bulls enter the game on a three-game streak (2-0-1) without a loss, which comes after a dreadful eight-game winless run (0-3-5). Most recently, New York has yielded one goal over its last three games.

Chicago earned its sealegs after the club signed the German former international Bastian Schweinsteiger; the Fire put together a run of nine games without a loss from mid-May to the beginning of July. But with the former Manchester United midfielder hobbled by a right thigh injury, the Fire have been up and down since. He is listed as questionable for Wednesday’s match while John Goossens (right ankle surgery), Jorge Bava (left elbow surgery), Daniel Johnson (left MCL injury), Christian Dean (fifth metatarsal fracture) and Michael de Leeuw (ruptured left ACL) are all out. 

“When you lose a World Cup winner, one of the most dangerous players in the league, it would weaken any team,” McCarty said. “It is clear, at the end of the day, that there are no excuses. Teams are having a big focus on shutting down our midfield and that puts the onus on our center backs and outside backs and wingers to try and make the game. If teams are clogging the middle we have to come up with other solutions to win the game.”

The Fire are one of the league’s most dangerous clubs on offense and the counterattack. Nemanja Nikolic led the league with 24 goals (close to half of the club’s 61 total goals) and the speedy David Accam is dangerous whenever given space to run with the ball.

“Whenever you play Chicago you always have to account Accam,” Marsch said. “He’s good when he has space so you want to make sure you keep track of him. Even then he gets free and makes plays. And Nikolic … if you lose track of him he’s very smart in movement and he’s a great finisher.”