It's time to bust out the Kenny Loggins, Red Bulls fans. When the MLS schedule was unveiled last winter, you somehow knew that the final fixture against Philadelphia would have extra meaning. As a result of RBNY's nightmare performance last Saturday in Kansas City - when they had the chance to punch their ticket to the playoffs with what was virtually a first choice XI, but ended up losing their captain for the remainder of the regular season - Thursday's showdown at Red Bull Arena will probably determine New York's postseason fate.
There's a chance, of course, that the Red Bulls will be able to breathe a little bit easier if the D.C. United/Portland Timbers match this evening at RFK Stadium ends in a draw. A draw would knock D.C. out of the playoff picture and make a win in Salt Lake a must for Portland, even if the Red Bulls lose on Thursday. Chicago still has a minuscule chance to catch the Red Bulls, if they can somehow make up a five-goal deficit. On the other hand, three points either way in D.C. this evening would ratchet up the pressure on New York just a little bit more.
The Red Bulls will need to find a way to manage on Thursday without Thierry Henry, whose red card incident in Kansas City Hans Backe has - strangely - yet to watch. Kristian Dyer of mlsssoccer.com reported yesterday that Dane Richards will probably start up top with Luke Rodgers on Thursday, providing the team with a lot of speed, but precious little height. Don't expect RBNY to pose much of a threat on set pieces. Unless Hans Backe has a surprise up his sleeve, Richards in a striker role means that Juan Agudelo will once again be on the bench. It also means that Backe will have a choice to make on the right side of midfield. He has used Mehdi Ballouchy there before, but can he afford to go with the Mediocre Moroccan again in such a critical game? We'll find out.
Speaking of Backe, RBNY Sporting Director Erik Solér spoke with media yesterday in Harrison, and indicated that regardless of Thursday's result Backe will return next season to manage the Red Bulls. We've been critical of Backe's in-game decision making, his ultra-conservative tactics and his unwillingness to use subs, but the club's Austrian overlords apparently feel that giving the Solér/Backe team the time they need to correct their mistakes is preferable to another off-season of front office turmoil.
To be fair, Backe is the first manager of the club since 2000 to achieve a first place Eastern Conference finish, even if it was quickly followed by playoff failure against San Jose. Equally interesting were Solér's comments regarding transfer targets and the likelihood that MLS will avoid playing on FIFA dates next season. The latter piece of news may be yet another case of Solér speaking out of school (you have to assume that he's not especially popular down at MLS headquarters), but let's all hope it's true. The Gold Cup and constant international call ups have played havoc with the Red Bulls' season, even if - as Michael Lewis at Big Apple Soccer rightly points out - it's ridiculous to pin the entirety of RBNY's 2011 failure on missing players.
The Viper's Nest Crew will be out at the Arena for Thursday night's game, so if you're a regular reader and have not had a chance to stop by for one of our inane videos, come by either Gate D at halftime or Gate A at full time and give us some comments. It may be your last chance this year!