Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
The New York Red Bulls enter the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, but this time, they enter as Major League Soccer regular season champions.
And yet, in the tightly contested Eastern Conference, they face maybe the most dangerous opponent available, the Houston Dynamo. The Dynamo have made the final of the MLS Cup two seasons in a row, both times falling to the Los Angeles Galaxy, but they always seem to turn it on right as they enter the playoffs after an up and down regular season.
This season for the Red Bulls though has been all about proving the skeptics wrong. Mike Petke’s club won their first major piece of silverware with the Supporters Shield last Sunday, and for the first time since the Dynamo came into existence, swept the season series, including two-straight wins at BBVA Compass Stadium. Prior to this season, the Red Bulls had never won a regular season game in Houston.
Tim Cahill has taken control of the team on the field and is in the middle of a tremendous season. The Australian leads the team with 11 goals and five assists and does plenty of other work that doesn’t make the stat sheet. On the other side, Will Bruin’s brace against the Impact could be a sign that he’s rounding into form, and it’s clear to see that Oscar Boniek Garcia and former MetroStar Ricardo Clark are fully fit in the final weeks of the season.
Here’s a closer look at this series match-up:
SEASON SERIES - The Red Bulls won the season series, 3-0-0. It began with a 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena on June 30, followed by 4-1 and 3-0 victories at BBVA Compass Stadium on September 8 and October 20, respectively.
PLAYERS TO WATCH – RED BULLS: Tim Cahill (11 goals, 5 assists), Thierry Henry, (10 goals, 9 assists), Luis Robles (17 wins, 11 shutouts). DYNAMO: Brad Davis (4 goals, 9 assists), Will Bruin (8 goals 7 assists), Oscar Boniek Garcia (3 goals, 6 assists).
MATCH-UP TO WATCH: Tim Cahill vs. Ricardo Clark. Two players with World Cup experience go head to head in the midfield, where the match will likely be won. The Red Bulls have been lead by Cahill recently on the scoring chart and through sheer determination, and it will be up to Clark, without Moffat behind him anymore, to neutralize the Australian threat.
X-FACTORS: For the most part, when the Red Bulls have been successful, it’s been because they’ve had excellent play on the wings. Lloyd Sam and Johnny Steele have been in good form in terms of constantly attacking opposition defenders and using overlapping runs from wing backs David Carney and Markus Holgersson/Brandon Barklage/Kosuke Kimura.
Another X-Factor will be the finishing of Giles Barnes and Will Bruin for the Dynamo. Both of them have proven this season that they can finish in a multitude of ways, but they didn’t do it consistently enough. Luis Robles, for all the tremendous saves and performances he’s made, is prone to errors, as is the Red Bulls back line, giving a confident Bruin some hope that he can forget about his previous performances against the Red Bulls and focus on using his combination of speed and power to score another playoff goal or two.
After scoring 16 goals total last season, this season Bruin has only racked up 10 goals, including the two against the Montreal Impact on Thursday. Bruin has taken 102 shots this campaign with only 34 on target, a 33 percent strike rate. If Bruin improves that number, the Dynamo could be on their way to the Eastern Conference finals.
On paper, one would think that the Red Bulls are the better team in this series, but nothing is ever won on paper. Mike Petke’s side have defied the odds to finish as first place in the Eastern Conference and remain unbeaten for eight consecutive matches.
This team is a far cry from the one that fell on the road to Chivas USA nine matches ago. Or the one that played Toronto FC to an embarrassing scoreless draw on a dry and hot summers day at BMO Field. Simply put, like Petke over the course of the season, the Red Bulls have evolved into a unit where everyone seems to know their place in the team.
Over the course of the season, the Red Bulls have lived up to the high expectations that come with a team that features Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. In their three wins this season against the Dynamo, the Red Bulls have outscored their opposition, 7-1. However, the playoffs are another animal. The Dynamo have a 9-1-0 record in home playoff games, but the Red Bulls are the only side to register a win in Houston in the postseason, which they did on their way to an appearance in the 2008 MLS Cup final.
On the other side, the playoffs is when teams coached by Dominic Kinnear thrive. Even prior to making it to the MLS Cup finals two straight years, the Dynamo won the MLS Cup in their first two years of existence in 2006 and 2007. Last season, as a fifth seed, the Dynamo ran through every obstacle in their path including the talented and tough Sporting Kansas City on their way to the final, falling to the LA Galaxy, 3-1, last December.
“This is the time of the year that we all tremendously enjoy, this is what it’s all about,” Dynamo captain Brad Davis told HoustonDynamo.com. It’s do or die, we like it when our back’s against the wall, we tend to come out scratching and crawling and doing our best in that situation.”
Just to face the Red Bulls, the fourth-placed Dynamo took out the Montreal Impact last Thursday with a 3-0 victory that saw tempers flare and the Impact finish with just eight players left on the field. Will Bruin scored twice and what will be a real scare for the Red Bulls is that with Jermaine Taylor out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery on his left foot, former Red Bulls draft selection Eric Brunner stepped right in and helped shut down Marco Di Vaio and Co.
One worry that the Red Bulls have currently is the status of Luis Robles. The veteran goalkeeper has started every league match this season and down the stretch has arguably been the team’s best player. With 11 shutouts and three penalty kick saves this season, it’s no surprise that some might be nervous while Robles’ left knee has been wrapped in an ice park since he collided with teammate Ibrahim Sekagya in the second half of Sunday’s 5-2 win vs. the Chicago Fire.
Both Petke and Robles played down the seriousness of what has been reported as a “Grade 1 knee sprain”, but if Robles isn’t able to go on Sunday, Petke has confidence that reserve goalkeeper Ryan Meara can perform well in the playoffs.
“There’s no need for him to train,” Petke told MLSSoccer.com. “He took a knock, [the team doctor] is indicating he will be fine. He is already feeling much, much better. Nine, 10 months into the season, two days resting him is not going to do any [harm].”
On the plus side for the Red Bulls, they welcomed back Roy Miller to full training this week and if Robles is healthy, they’ll have a full compliment of players (with the exception of Ian Christianson and Heath Pearce) to select from ahead of the series with the Dynamo.
The first leg of the series takes place on Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium at 3:30pm (ET) with the second leg returning to Red Bull Arena on Wednesday evening at 8pm (ET).