The Red Bulls’ mission for Saturday is simple: Beat Sporting Kansas City and get into the MLS playoffs in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Forget the off-the-field challenges, the numerous injuries and the previous results. It’s win and you're in for New York.
A victory over Sporting Kansas City Saturday (6:30 p.m. on MSG+) would clinch a postseason berth for a Red Bulls team that has struggled down the stretch. New York has sputtered at home in two out of their last three matches -- one of which was a 2-0 home loss to Kansas City back on Sept. 19 -- and the Red Bulls know a win is far from assured, especially against a Sporting team that has something to play for. A victory for KC Saturday and a Chicago Fire loss would clinch the No. 1 seed in the East for the team that sports the best defensive record in the league (26 goals allowed in 32 games) and the second-best road record (8-4-4) in MLS. It’s a daunting task for Hans Backe’s team and the pressure is on.
It all comes to execution and concentration for Backe’s team on Saturday. In that earlier loss to Sporting, the Red Bulls were punished twice on set pieces, as the visitors scored early and cruised to an easy victory.
That can’t that happen in the regular-season home finale. Whomever Backe selects to be a part of his starting back four, the goal must be to keep a clean sheet at all costs. With the water-tight defense Sporting KC has, any leaks at the back could prove to be fatal for New York. A brutal start like the one in their previous encounter could end any hope of victory.
On the other end of the field, the Red Bulls have to be clinical in front of goal with any chances they get. The Red Bulls dominated possession in their last match against Sporting -- 61.7 percent to 38.3 -- but couldn’t do much in the final third and created few opportunities. Backe experimented last time with Tim Cahill being used as a second striker; that won’t happen this Saturday. Expect the usual Thierry Henry-Kenny Cooper partnership up front.
While it seems likely that the Red Bulls’ forward line is all but certain, the starting midfield is anyone’s guess. Cahill is likely to be dropped back into a more orthodox central midfield role. But the question: Who will be the Australian international partner in the middle of the park?
In the previous encounter, Backe opted for a Rafa Marquez-Teemu Tainio combination and shifted Dax McCarty to the right wing, while using Joel Lindpere out on the left. It would make more sense for Backe to opt for McCarty alongside Cahill in center midfield, but Marquez is a player with big-match experience and has shown the ability to be a dynamic playmaker when on form. The problem is, Marquez has been so-so in a Red Bulls uniform.
Now would be the time to come up with one of his better outings.
Bad Blood and Trash Talk
Last month's Red Bulls-Sporting KC encounter ended up being a chippy affair, with Henry being suspended by MLS following the match for violent conduct after headbutting Kansas City's Kei Kamara in stopapge time.
Kamara took to Twitter after the match, writing this response: "WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN ONE OF YOUR IDOLS DO YOU WRONG / DISAPPOINTS YOU?" (the tweet was later deleted).
Meanwhile, Cahill was left unimpressed by the East leaders after the match, blaming the Red Bulls' ineffectiveness on the defeat rather than giving credit to Sporting.
"I don’t think there’s anything special to their team [Sporting Kansas City]," he said to the media after the match. "I think we didn’t perform tonight. That’s definitely not the team I know. We’ve got a lot more fight than that.”
If there's any carryover from the last match, Saturday should be all the more spicy.
In a move that surprised most observers, the Red Bulls announced the removal of Erik Soler as General Manager and Sporting Director, and appointed former AS Monaco president Jerome de Bontin as his replacement. Former Liverpool, Olympique Lyonnais and Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier will be in charge of player personnel. Soler will remain with the team as an advisor.
It’s a curious decision to announce such a move during the season, especially with the team chasing a playoff spot. Nevertheless, the Red Bulls’ do bring in an experienced head in Houllier, a man that has managed the elite of European soccer, with titles won in England and France. Houllier has an eye for a talent -- his signings of Sami Hyppia, Dietmar Hamann and Stephane Henchoz at Liverpool rank as some of his finest business -- but it remains to be seen if the former French national team manager can be as successful here.
It almost means another adjustment period for a new management team that must come to grips with the MLS system. Can Houllier use the MLS SuperDraft to the Red Bulls’ advantage and manage the salary cap, two things completely unheard of in Europe?
All eyes will be on the front office in coming months.