Thursday, October 13, 2011

Red Bulls Travel to KC With Fate in Their Own Hands

A Big Result Against L.A. Put the Playoffs Well Within the Red Bulls' Grasp
We've gotten down to the part of the MLS calendar when fans can't help but scoreboard watch, however much they'd like to simply focus on their team's results. For Red Bulls supporters, this means - for the most part - hoping that their rivals in the Eastern Conference drop as many points as possible between now and next weekend, when the 2011 season wraps up.

At the moment, there is a still a chance, however slim, that the Red Bulls could finish atop the East, if they run the table and other results go their way. More likely is that New York will either finish in one of the top three positions in the conference or squeak into the postseason with a wild card berth. The number crunchers currently have the Red Bulls playoff likelihood at 86.3%. Their prospects were helped last night by D.C. United's 2-1 loss in Vancouver and - to a lesser extent - by Chicago's defeat at the hands of FC Dallas. Together, these results boosted the chances of all the clubs currently sitting in playoff positions, as well as Portland, who are on the outside looking in.

The formula for RBNY is now pretty simple: win on Saturday in Kansas City and they're virtually assured of postseason play. A draw would still leave them with a bit of work to do against Philadelphia in the season finale, depending on other results. A loss could make for a real nailbiter next Thursday. In any scenario, the Red Bulls' fate is very much in their own hands. If they fail to make the playoffs from what is currently a dominant position they'll only have themselves to blame.

(For details on the various non-RBNY playoff scenarios, click here.)

For RBNY to secure a playoff spot on Saturday, they will have to do what only one MLS team, Seattle Sounders, has managed to do so far - win at Livestrong Sporting Park. After struggling so mightily on their mammoth early season road trip, Peter Vermes and company have pulled things together and gotten fat off of home cooking. In C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury they have one of the league's more exciting young forward tandems, while the emergence of players such as midfielder Graham Zusi has given them a massive shot in the arm at just the right time.

The Red Bulls will also have to find a way to get a result without their iron man Joel Lindpere, who is suspended for Saturday's game due to yellow card accumulation. Will Hans Backe risk a Brian Nielsen start, or will it be back to the old playbook, with an all-too-familiar Mehdi Ballouchy appearance? [Edit: according to Kristian Dyer on Twitter, Lindpere is not suspended for this game, even though he is listed as such on the MLS website.] Elsewhere, the Red Bulls' injury concerns are few, with the exception of Chris Albright. The return of Luke Rodgers seems to have been the biggest factor in the team's late season run, which has seen them win three of their last five games. When Rodgers starts, good things generally happen. When the Red Bulls are deprived of their pint-sized bulldog they tend to struggle.

The other major concern, as it has been almost all season long, is the confidence of the RBNY's back line. Tim Ream's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night for the USMNT against Ecuador on Tuesday probably hasn't done wonders for his confidence, which was already at a low ebb after the Rafa Marquez controversy. He will need to put the national team disaster out of his head quickly and provide a solid 90+ minutes on Saturday.

The Red Bulls have it all in front of them. Will they come up big in the clutch or choke under pressure?

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