Friday, April 30, 2010

Red Bulls Preview: Sizing Up DC United

With a few notable exceptions, the story of the DC United-MetroStars/Red Bull rivalry has been one-sided.  Since 1996, DC have generally curb stomped New York home and away.  Michael Lewis lays out the whole ugly history at Big Apple Soccer.  But, as Lewis notes, it's not just futility against DC that the Red Bulls will be fighting when they voyage inside the Beltway this weekend - they will also be trying to bury an amazing 20 game winless streak against Eastern Conference opponents away from home.

That's an incredible stat in any league, but even more incredible when you consider the parity in MLS.  The New York franchise - whatever you want to call it - has had a mental block about playing DC United and other Eastern rivals.  If you need proof, just look at last season's meeting at Giants Stadium, when the Red Bulls dominated for long stretches then pissed it all away at the end of the game, setting the stage for the shitstorm that was to come.

But that's all in the past, right? Captain Caveman, Ben Olsen, has hobbled off into the sunset on what was left of his knees, Christian Gómez is playing for Miami FC, Fred is plying his trade in Philadelphia and, perhaps most importantly, the DC United injury list looks like something out of a Civil War movie.  Major cogs of the team - guys like Bryan Namoff, Chris Pontius and Dejan Jakovic - will all be out this weekend as they recover from injuries.  Others, like Clyde Simms and Juan Manuel Peña, may play despite injuries. 

Even with all of those players in the lineup, DC was shaping up to be one of the weaker squads in MLS, as the club made very few "impact" signings over the winter.  The one big player they did add, goalkeeper Troy Perkins, has been anything but steady.  Manager and MLS retread Curt Onalfo (pictured) is already on the hot seat.  With players either missing or questionable, others struggling for form and the a generally bad vibe around the team stemming from the lack of a stadium deal and uncertainty about its future, DC would seem to be ripe for the picking as never before.  The smuggest team in MLS has been knocked down a peg or three.

In fact, it's now gotten so bad that they've brought back tubby striker Luciano Emilio on a three month loan (his participation on Saturday is subject to the receipt of his international transfer certificate).  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The question is - will the Red Bulls capitalize?

Given all the variables, you have to wonder what kind of lineup Onalfo will roll out there on Saturday.  Rookie and DC United Academy product Andy Najar scored his first goal on Wednesday in a 4-2 victory over Dallas in the US Open Cup.  Former New England Revolution striker Adam Cristman also netted twice in that game, the first positive result of the young season for DC.  Could we see this strike pairing again on Saturday, against a rested starting XI for the Red Bulls?  It's quite possible.

With DC desperately needing a victory and the Red Bulls desperately needing to bury their streak of futility against United, it's hard to say what will happen on Saturday.  Those of us who have followed the Red Bulls/MetroStars for a while are all too familiar with our tendency to lose games like this.  But have we turned a corner with Hans Backe in charge?  Will we be wary enough of overconfidence not to screw up this golden opportunity to step on the neck of our arch-rival?  We'll know on Saturday.  Either way, the Red Bulls will return home at the top of the Eastern Conference while DC will remain rooted to the bottom of the table.  So we've got that going for us.  Let's just hope the margin is wider than the current 12 points.

Viper, You Suck Corrales and I will be driving down to our nation's capital along with the great Tom Faust.  A busload of ESC and several other carloads of supporters will also be making the trip.  We will have video, photos and other assorted insanity from Lot 3 at and the upper deck at RFK when we return.  Wish us luck and please, if you are watching on TV, send positive vibes to the boys.
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