Preview: Red Bulls vs. Philadelphia Union (A.K.A “The Big One”)

Image / MLSSoccer.com

In terms of entertainment an all important season finale between bitter rivals is as good as it gets. The burgeoning rivalry between the Red Bulls and the Union, an extension of the long simmering sports rivalry between the cities of New York and Philadelphia, grows more heated with each meeting. When the 2011 schedule matched the teams on the last night of the season both fanbases hoped and expected a game of great significance.

For Philadelphia it’s all gone to plan. Having already clinched the playoffs the Union have a chance to win the East and knock out the rival Red Bulls in the process. On the other hand New York is in need of a result just to scrape into the playoffs in the final wild card spot. The comparison is a humbling one for a New York team that did a lot of talking about trophies and championships leading into the season only to find themselves looking up at a team in only their second year of existence. Tonight New York has to put the disappointments and failures of 2011 out of their minds and get a result just to fight another day.

Not a must win….for once
Judging by the comments of Hans Backe and his charges throughout the season, about 90% of the games the Red Bulls played in 2011 were “must win” games. Of course they failed to do so consistently and eternally stripped the oft used phrase of any meaning it once had. Yet they remain, miraculously, in the play-off hunt. Despite the huge implications of tonight’s rivalry match the game is, ironically, not a “must win” for New York.

Following the draw between DC United and the Portland Timbers on Wednesday a tie will be enough for the Red Bulls to clinch a playoff spot. Even a loss might see the Red Bulls back into the playoffs if Portland fails to win this weekend and Chicago is unable to make up the goal differential gap(they’d have to make up 5 goals) between the two teams.

Chaos at captain
Due to his controversial red card against Sporting Kansas City, Thierry Henry will miss tonight’s contest. While the red card is debatable it’s his second of the season and calls into question his judgment and temperament. Throughout the season New York has relied on the Frenchmen to pull results seemingly out of thin air and tonight will have to cope without the talent and threat that Henry brings to a match.

In place of Henry, Rafa Marquez will wear the captain’s armband. The choice is questionable to say the least. Marquez drew the ire of the fans and was suspended one match for criticizing his teammates, especially Tim Ream. There has to be some concern that a player who publicly disparages his fellow players won’t be able to coax the best performance out of the team. However, if Marquez can lead New York to three points over the Union it would go a long way to repairing his reputation in the eyes of the fans. Still, Joel Lindpere seems to be a better choice and it would be a nice reward for a player who puts in maximum effort every minute he plays.

Dane up top
Without Henry the Red Bulls will be forced to shuffle the lineup. Backe has said that he will start Dane Richards up top alongside Luke Rodgers. The Red Bulls have never won a match with Dane Richards at forward. That’s not to blame the Jamaican who improves as a striker each start he gets, but the loss of Richards as a threat on the wing might outweigh his value at forward. Juan Agudelo looked dangerous against Philly the first time the teams met, hitting the woodwork twice. It’s a strange decision not to start the young American, although Backe may prefer to use him as a second half threat off the bench if the match is tight.

Outlook
The Red Bulls need only a draw, something they’ve accomplished an astonishing 16 times this season, to advance to the playoffs. If they can’t muster the motivation to achieve a point at home, against their rival, with the playoffs on the line it would be a shocking end to the disappointing 2011 season.

If the Red Bulls do get the result they need and make the playoffs, it will be due to the failure of others and not their own achievements. Erik Soler has to know that no matter what the result tonight this season has been a complete failure by every possible measure. There are plenty of lessons for Backe and Soler to learn from this season and if they fail to do so the playoffs will be nothing more than a band-aid on a gaping wound.

  • David Johnson

    Great preview Mike. Surpriseig more haven’t made a bigger deal of the Marquez as captain decision.