One is a club built on star power and the other is led by an unlikely success story. Despite the differences, both the New York Red Bulls and the San Jose Earthquakes are expecting to make a run deep into the MLS playoffs.
The Earthquakes are led by the MLS Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski, whose unlikely run to the boot catapulted the Quakes into the playoffs for the first time since the franchise's re-inception into MLS. The New York Red Bulls are led by the Designated Players: Rafa Marquez, Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel, but it will be the play of players like Joel Lindpere and Bouna Coundoul that will decide the series.
Despite earning their first playoff berth since 2008, the buzz in the Red Bulls camp this week surrounds the injury bug that has currently ruled out Thierry Henry, Tony Tchani and Salou Ibrahim from the first leg at Buck Shaw Stadium. Without Henry, the Red Bulls original DP, Angel, will be instrumental in beating an Earthquakes defense that has shown signs of wear in recent weeks.
Led by Wondolowski and the timely goalkeeping of Jon Busch, the Earthquakes believe that they could be the latest 8-seed to advance to the MLS Cup final. Stopping Wondolowski will be the most important issue for Hans Backe's men, but the forward states that keying in on him too much is something that the Red Bulls should do at their own peril.
"If they want to key in on me, then I'm just fine with that, because I feel that will open up the space for our other weapons," Wondolowski said. "At home though, we can't start on our back foot, and we'll need to really go after them and make the Red Bulls defend from the get go."
Here is a closer look at the series:
NEW YORK RED BULLS vs. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
HEAD TO HEAD
Teams split season series (May 8: Earthquakes 4, Red Bulls 0; Aug. 28: Red Bulls 2, Earthquakes 0)
First Leg – Sat., 10 p.m., Telefutura
Second Leg – Thurs., Nov. 4, 8 p.m., ESPN2
KEY MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Chris Wondolowski vs. Tim Ream: Wondolowski is the hottest player in MLS, scoring every goal for the Earthquakes to solidify their playoff position down the stretch. Wondolowski has made a living with his ability to be at the right place at the right time, but will face a challenge while going up against the Red Bulls rookie central defender. Ream had success against Wondolowski in their last matchup, and Wondolowski admitted that the physicality of the rookie will provide the Golden Boot winner with his biggest test.
Juan Pablo Angel vs. Jason Hernandez: Juan Pablo Angel may be on the way out, but without Henry, the Colombian holds the key to the Red Bull offense and will be expected to provide the spear in Hans Backe's 4-5-1 formation. Hernandez has flown under the radar this season, making an impressive return from injury, but he will need to put a poor performance in the Quakes finale behind him.
Geovanni vs. Rafa Marquez: While the match up between Wondolowski and Ream will get the headlines, the outcome of the series will depend on these two DPs. Geovanni's inclusion at midseason helped the Earthquakes focus on holding possession, but against the strong midfield of the Red Bulls, Geovanni will be called upon to use his pinpoint passing to lead the Quakes' speedy counter. For the Red Bulls, Marquez is a focal point on both side of the ball. Breaking up an attack as the first line of defense for the Red Bulls is his main duty, but Marquez is also responsible for leading the counter by starting attacks for the Red Bulls.
For New York, Dane Richards has enjoyed a renaissance this year, and he was the difference maker in the last match between the two clubs in August, scoring a goal and an assist while routinely darting behind the Quakes defense. Expect Richards to line up against Tim Ward and Ramiro Corrales, who have struggled to handle speedy wingers in the past.
Richards foil on the Earthquakes, Bobby Convey, unhinges rival defenses by sending in passes through midfield and whipping in passes to the penalty box for Wondolowski and fellow striker Ryan Johnson. A finalist for Comeback Player of the Year, Convey has rebounded by displaying the tenacity on offense and defense that made him a fixture on the national team years ago.
Without Henry, the onus will be on the Earthquakes have a big result at home on Saturday. A win in the opening match at Buck Shaw Stadium would put immense pressure on the favored Red Bulls for the return leg. Expect Frank Yallop's men to look to use their speedy counterattack to attempt to undercut the Red Bulls' possession-based game. Backe's Red Bulls will be reliant on Marquez, who looks to be focal point for the Red Bulls regardless of their injury woes. Marquez will be instrumental in breaking up attacks and preventing the Earthquakes from getting Wondolowski involved in the attack.
Who do you think will advance from this series? Cast your vote here:
How did you vote? Do you think New York can overcome its injury woes? Can you see Wondolowski continuing his hot streak and igniting an uspet?
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