One game is all the Red Bulls get to prove they deserve a place in the playoffs. This year’s postseason format pits the wildcard teams against one another in a one game knockout round at the stadium of the higher ranked team. For New York that means a trip to Texas and Pizza Hut Park to take on FC Dallas.
The reward for winning tonight’s match is a home and away series against the Supporter’s Shield winning Los Angeles Galaxy. If they survive that encounter the Red Bulls would have to play one more away game in the conference final before the MLS Cup in Los Angeles. It’s a daunting road for a team that struggled for consistency, but having finished in the bottom half of the league the Red Bulls are lucky to even be in contention for MLS Cup. It will do New York no good to contemplate the gauntlet that awaits them if they are to raise MLS Cup. Tonight it’s all about one game and the one team they have to defeat to advance.
Can the Red Bulls Win Without Luke Rodgers?
Earlier this week Hans Backe announced that Red Bulls talisman, Luke Rodgers, will miss tonights playoff match with an inflamed knee. It seems strange for a team with three designated players to rely so heavily on an unheralded English journeyman but the numbers tell the story. New York is 9-4-7 with Rodgers starting and 1-4-9 with him on the bench or injured. That solitary Rodgers-less win came in the season opener against Seattle.
The Red Bulls can find some solace in the fact that Dane Richards has improved markedly forward.. The Jamaican will start for the injured Rodgers after filling in for the suspended Thierry Henry against Philadelphia. He scored the lone goal against Philly and earlier this season scored two goals from the forward position against New England. One key to the success of Richards up front against Philly was the solid play of Dax McCarty who filled in for the Jamaican at right midfield. Add in the fact that Henry and Richards seem to have great chemistry on the field and New York may not be as doomed as one would expect.
The performance of Thierry Henry will also be important. Henry’s form has varied throughout the season. He has spent whole games jogging haphazardly around the pitch only to salvage the match with a moment of brilliance. Other times he carried the team on his back for 90 minutes showing the passion that has defined his career. Additionally that passion and aggression has caused him to draw silly fouls and cards. For all intents and purposes this will be the Captain’s first playoff game with New York (he came in for the last six minutes of the Red Bulls loss to San Jose last year). The Henry that shows up tonight could be the deciding factor in the result for the Red Bulls.
Away Field Advantage?
Dallas goes into tonight’s match with a big advantage playing in friendly confines, or one would think. The Red Bulls are undefeated in their last three matches at Pizza Hut Park with a record of 1-0-2. FC Dallas is one of only two teams that the Red Bulls defeated on the road this season, a win that kicked off a run to the playoffs.
Even more surprising, New York has a better record away than at home in recent postseason matches. Going back through 2008 New York has three victories in three matches away from home. In that same period the Red Bulls have lost one game and tied another in home playoff matches.
Of course historical results have no bearing on what will happen tonight. However, the mental advantage that the home team is usually afforded could be neutralized by a New York side that seems to prefer the road this time of year.
New York and Dallas took different roads to the playoffs. For much of the year FC Dallas looked to be among the elite of MLS until a heavy schedule took its toll and they limped to the finish line. New York on the other hand struggled for results throughout the summer before doing just enough to make the postseason. Since the two teams met in September New York has gone a solid if not spectacular 3-2-1 while Dallas went 2-6-0 in all competitions.
Dallas’ struggles can be blamed in large part on their busy schedule towards the end of the season. Until recently the Texas side was competing in the CONCACAF Champions League and were hampered by injuries and the need to rest players. That is the case no longer as FC Dallas boasts a full lineup for tonight’s match.
Tonight’s game is tough one to call. MLS has a long history of bottom seeds getting surprise results. That combined with New York’s away form in Dallas and the playoffs seems to point towards an upset. At the same time New York is without Rodgers and have failed on a number of occasions to show up for big games this season. Still I have a feeling the Red Bulls will pull of the upset on the back of Henry.*
*To be fair, if you look at my predictions throughout the season my forecast should amount to very little.