New York Red Bulls must pull off a feat that the franchise has never achieved to reach Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference final – win in the post-season at Red Bull Arena.
The club’s $200 million home in Harrison, N.J. has hosted two playoff games since its March 2010 opening. Two defeats prompted disappointing ends to two seasons that showed early promise under Swedish head coach Hans Backe before badly fading away. A similar situation presents itself against D.C. United Wednesday.
Backe’s first season in MLS, which coincided with Red Bull Arena’s arrival, saw the re-energized New York franchise finish top of the Eastern Conference and third overall behind Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. New signings Joel Lindpere and Roy Miller formed an industrious, attacking unit down the left side while Dane Richards’ speed on the right wing and Juan Pablo Angel’s goalscoring prowess helped to turn the worst team in 2009 into title contenders.
New York’s ambitions were made clear that summer when the club invested close to $10 million a year in salary to bring in French superstar striker Thierry Henry and Mexican captain Rafael Marquez from Spanish champions Barcelona.
A solitary Lindpere goal at San Jose Earthquakes’ Buck Shaw Stadium in the first leg of the 2010 conference semi-finals seemingly put the Red Bulls in control against that year’s lowest ranking qualifier. Bobby Convey’s brace shocked the Red Bull Arena crowd in the second leg before Angel and Chris Wondolowski swapped goals to give San Jose a 3-1 lead, 3-2 overall on aggregate. Henry, a late substitute after recovering from a right knee injury, fluffed a late chance to take the game to extra time. The Frenchman’s undistinguished debut season was over and New York fans lamented another missed opportunity to lift the club’s first meaningful silverware.
Henry’s first full season in MLS saw the former Arsenal striker miss playing time with injuries to his hamstrings, right knee and Achilles, flu-like symptoms in July and a couple of suspensions following petulant red cards at Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City. He still chipped in with 14 goals – eclipsed only by Dwayne De Rosario and Wondolowski – to help the Red Bulls scrape into the 10th and final play-off spot. A Supporters’ Shield had seemed likely at the end of April before Backe’s side hit a run of two wins in 20 games (with 13 ties and five losses).
A Gold Cup call-up and an injury suffered in the final against the USA saw the gaffe-prone Marquez missing 12 straight games. His return heralded an avalanche of defensive howlers from the Mexican, who later blamed his struggles on the inadequacy of his teammates.
Henry’s stoppage time goal on the counter-attack sealed New York’s 2-0 win at F.C. Dallas in the opening wildcard game in October, setting up a two-legged conference semi-final clash with Supporters’ Shield winners Los Angeles. Mike Magee’s early goal in a 1-0 Galaxy win effectively ended the Red Bulls’ season. Magee scored again at Home Depot Center as Bruce Arena’s side completed a 3-1 aggregate win. Marquez missed the return game through suspension after churlishly tossing the ball at Landon Donovan after the first leg before taking a shameless dive during the ensuing melee.
This year has followed a similar pattern for Backe’s side despite an air of freshness enveloping the squad in pre-season. A 2-1 win at Montreal Impact on May 19, the club’s fifth straight victory, saw New York sitting top of the East with 25 points from 12 games (8-1-3) – one point behind Real Salt Lake in the overall standings with a game in hand.
Marquez missed most of that run through his suspension carried over from last year’s play-off antics, a further three-game ban for breaking Shea Salinas’ clavicle in the Red Bulls’ 2-2 tie with San Jose on April 14, and announced problems with his groin and Achilles. Thigh, calf and hamstring injuries have since surfaced as Marquez continues to make more comebacks than Jason Voorhees.
Backe’s inability to pick a settled side and develop a style of play for his team saw the Red Bulls close out the season with just eight wins from the remaining 22 games. Seven of those came at Red Bull Arena, though the veneer of home invincibility that built up as New York moved to 10-0-3 in Harrison by mid-September was shattered in recent weeks by Kansas City and Chicago Fire.
D.C. United fell 3-2 in its sole trip to New Jersey this year on June 24. Ben Olsen has since altered his side’s system to 4-2-3-1 from 4-4-2, allowing the center-midfield trio of Perry Kitchen, Marcelo Saragosa and Branko Boskovic to dictate the game while Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon support central striker Lionard Pajoy from wider areas.
Olsen’s team was by far the better side in Saturday’s 1-1 tie at RFK Stadium. United even created the better scoring opportunities after Andy Najar’s sending off left them a man short for the closing 19 minutes plus stoppages. That left the 35-year-old head coach feeling confident about his team’s chances of extending New York’s playoff woes at Red Bull Arena.
“It’s a doable task,” said Olsen during his post-match press conference Saturday. “They’re a beatable team, that’s for sure.”
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