The injury-plagued New York Red Bulls are brimming with confidence after three straight 1-0 victories while the Philadelphia Union are hoping an exhibition win over a top European team will help kick-start them in MLS.
The home team has won each of four previous meetings between these Eastern Conference rivals heading into Sunday’s matchup in Philadelphia.
New York (6-3-1) has a lengthy injury list with top scorer Thierry Henry the most notable absence due to a strained right hamstring. Midfielders Rafa Marquez and Teemu Tainio and defenders Stephen Keel and Wilman Conde are other key players missing.
Conde’s future status became further unclear Saturday with the news that he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault on a police officer.
The Red Bulls hope to put aside that distraction and continue the same formula it has used to win the last three games, beginning with a victory over New England on April 28 in which Henry got hurt. New York has scored within the first 20 minutes and sat on the lead the rest of the way, with rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara posting shutouts despite playing behind an inexperienced back line.
“I’m impressed with these guys,” said coach Hans Backe after Wednesday’s home win over Houston. “Three clean sheets with inexperienced guys.”
The Red Bulls conceded 14 goals in their first seven games before this win streak.
Solving that improved New York defense could be problematic for Philadelphia (2-5-1), which has five goals over eight games for the second-worst ratio in MLS ahead of only Chivas USA.
The Union have not played a league match since last Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Seattle, but are feeling better about themselves after Wednesday’s 2-1 exhibition victory over German club Schalke 04 - which has qualified for the UEFA Champions League next season. Lionard Pajoy and Chandler Hoffman had the goals for Philadelphia, which has not scored twice in an MLS match.
“Knowing we did well and got the victory against Schalke, I think it’ll help us play New York and know that we are headed in the right direction,” midfielder Michael Farfan said.
Philadelphia substituted liberally throughout the game and rested captain Danny Califf, midfielders Freddy Adu and Gabriel Gomez, defender Chris Albright and starting goalkeeper Zac MacMath with Sunday’s contest in mind.
“The real game starts on Sunday, that’s more important to anybody and they understand that, the players understand that, this is the game we’re looking forward to,” coach Petr Nowak said.
Each team has scored four goals over the four all-time meetings, with the Union winning 2-1 at home two years ago and 1-0 last April 9 at PPL Park.
While New York may have been an opponent a struggling offense could look forward to facing in the past, that’s no longer the case.
“I think that they’re really confident right now, coming off their three wins and not giving up any goals,” Philadelphia defender Sheanon Williams said. “I know that they’ve had a bunch of injuries - that even builds their confidence up even more.”
Kenny Cooper has been the Red Bulls’ lone striker the past two games with Henry out as part of a 4-1-4-1 defensive formation. Cooper had the lone goal in the seventh minute Wednesday to increase his season total to eight - three more than the entire Union team.