Playoff Preview: New York Red Bulls vs. DC United


Staff Writer

The New York Red Bulls have slayed a number of long-time demons this season.  There was the June 8th win at New England, ending a twelve-year drought.  There was Thursday’s home playoff win over Sporting Kansas City, the club’s first home playoff win since 2005.

Now comes a demon that’s hung over this franchise since the inaugural MLS season of 1996: New York has never beaten DC United in a playoff series. Never.  In four tries. In 1996, 2004, 2006, and 2012, the RFK Raccoon Wranglers ended New York’s MLS Cup dreams.

The Red Bulls come into Sunday afternoon’s match tired, and must guard against conceding to DC given this year’s postseason away-goals tiebreaker.  Can New York slay yet another dragon?


Match Information:

Sunday, November 2nd at Red Bull Arena, 4p ET kickoff, TV: MSG, Univision Deportes

Referee: Hilario Grajeda

Final Record, GF/GA, Division and League Position, Recent Form:

New York, 50 points from 34 matches, 55GF/50GA, 4th in the East, 8th in MLS, WWLWW (incl. playoffs)

DC United, 59 points from 34 matches, 52GF/37GA, 1st in the East, 3rd in MLS, WDWWD



DC’s front line vs. the Red Bulls defense:
Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson vs. Roy Miller, Jamison Olave, Ibrahim Sekagya, and Richard Eckersley (and Luis Robles).

Fabian Espindola (11G/9A) picked up a questionable red card in his last visit to Red Bull Arena on September 10th.  The former Red Bull would like nothing more than to stick it to his former club in front of his former fans.  Eddie Johnson (7G/3A) is on a bit of a personal hot streak, with two goals scored in DC’s last three matches.  Luis Silva (11G/4A) did not practice on Friday and has to be doubtful for Sunday, which is a huge break for New York.   Sporting KC was playing bunker and long ball on Thursday, and New York only allowed the defending champs only three shots on goal.  There was passing-aplenty between the backliners as the Red Bulls tried in vain for much of the match to look for an opening. Richard Eckersely rarely pushed forward. Rather, Roy Miller led most of the attack for New York down the left side.  Robles made a single save this week. He’ll be busier on Sunday.  

Advantage: DC United

New York’s attackers vs. the United defense:

Bradley Wright-Phillips vs. Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin (and Bill Hamid).

BWP scored with his foot and his head Thursday, and shame on any defense that loses him in the box.  Wright-Phillips is on fire, but has never scored against DC United. United has conceded only three goals in its last five matches, to quality forwards Marco DiVaio, Giles Barnes, and Harrison ShippBill Hamid is having a career year, with a 14-9-7 record, a tiny 1.13 GAA, and ten shutouts, including two against New York. Kemp (1G/2A) picked up his first goal of the season in October, and will be looking for more. Birnbaum had a massive rookie season, settling into a starting role and playing 21 matches. Sean Franklin (1G/4A) has thrived since his transition from LA, and Bobby Boswell (1G/3A) cleans up the mess in the middle.  Breaking down DC is very difficult, and may provide tougher than Kansas City on Thursday.

Advantage: Even

The Midfields:

Thierry Henry, Eric Alexander, Peguy Luyindula, Dax McCarty, and Lloyd Sam v Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Davy Arnaud, and Nick DeLeon.

Tim Cahill was once again a man out of position on Thursday.  He just isn’t optimized when both Henry and BWP are on the field together, so I have distributor Luyindula playing in his place.  The Knockout match completely changed when the Frenchman replaced Alexander.  With the need to defend paramount, though, I’m keeping New York in the familiar 4-2-3-1 that’s worked so well down the stretch.  Sam barely had room to operate against Sporting, and must find a way if the Red Bulls are to create more chances.  Pontius managed only a single goal this year, appearing in only six matches due to injury. The “Party Boy” sat out DC’s meaningless final regular-season match against Montreal. Davy Arnaud (2G, including a game-winner vs. New York) will try to neutralize Luyindula.  Kitchen (5G/4A) will be needed to kick-start the United attack without Luis Silva on the field. DeLeon (2G/5A) stuck the dagger in against the Red Bulls in the 2012 postseason.  

Advantage: Even

The Coaches:

Mike Petke’s substitutions worked to perfection on Thursday night, as both Luyindula and Oyongo delivered key assists from off the bench to help secure the victory.  The key for Petke will be developing a game plan to keep DC off the board at home, even if means saving the attack for next weekend.  The worst to first journey of Ben Olsen and his side is one of this season’s most compelling stories. Olsen has surrounded himself with veteran players that have been there before, and it’s shown.  Adding an MLS Cup as a coach would bring even more prestige to a DC icon that appeared more times for the club than anyone save Jaime Moreno.

Advantage: Even



DC sewed up their position at the top of the East a month ago, and cruised into the postseason   on a 3-0-3 run, though only one of those matches was against a playoff team, and that was a draw vs Sporting.  United conceded 25 of its 37 goals this season on the road.  New York is now 4-0-1 in its last five, and 8-1 in its last nine matches at Red Bull Arena. DC won the last playoff match between the two teams, in the infamous Kenny Cooper PK match in 2012. New York is 1-6-2 against DC in the playoffs, all-time. The weather forecast for Sunday will be cold and very windy, with a high of only 49 degrees and winds in excess of thirty miles an hour. After Thursday’s “light” crowd of over 15 thousand, the club is hoping for a better showing on Sunday. I think twenty thousand is possible, but not more.  Still, those in attendance will be in full voice. If you’re reading this and on the fence about attending, I have to ask, “Why?”  DC United will bring as many as a thousand traveling fans.

Advantage: Even

Given this addition of the away goals tiebreaker, defending becomes an absolute priority for New York.  Even a scoreless draw would give the Red Bulls a massive boost heading to the second leg in at RFK Stadium next Saturday. It’s difficult to predict that United’s impressive attack will be blunted by the often shaky Red Bulls back line.  I think New York will concede, but score as well in a highly entertaining 1-1 draw, putting the onus on the Red Bulls to playing an attacking style next week in the District.