Wins have been tough to come by recently, but the New York Red Bulls still have an opportunity to lock up their third consecutive trip to the MLS playoffs Saturday night at Red Bull Arena.
It may not be easy against a red-hot Sporting Kansas City club that hasn’t lost since July.
Sporting KC (17-7-8) heads into the contest with the league’s longest unbeaten streak this season at 6-0-4 over its last 10 matches. The Eastern Conference’s top team has gone 3-0-2 on the road during the run, including a 2-0 victory at New York on Sept. 19 that snapped the Red Bulls’ 16-match home unbeaten streak.
“Obviously, they’re one of the top teams in this league and they’re continuing to win games,” Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill said. “Kansas (City) is a team that we’d really like to beat. It’s a big game for us.”
While the Red Bulls (15-9-8) are tied for the league lead with 11 home wins, they’ve dropped two of three at Red Bull Arena, including a 2-0 loss to Chicago in their most recent game Oct. 6. Still, New York - fourth in the East and just one point behind third-place D.C. United - can clinch a playoff berth in several scenarios Saturday.
The simplest is with a victory, and that’s what the Red Bulls would prefer after totaling one point in their first two meetings with Sporting KC this season.
“During the playoffs, we’re going to have to play them,” New York coach Hans Backe said. “And we need to figure out how to do something different (against them) than what we’ve done before.”
Sporting KC, coming off a 1-1 tie at Columbus on Oct. 7, can secure the No. 1 seed in the conference with a win and a Chicago loss or draw. If the Fire and D.C. both lose, Sporting KC can seal the top spot with a tie against the Red Bulls.
Saturday’s matchup features the top scoring offense in the East against the stingiest defensive unit in MLS. New York leads the conference with 54 goals, with Kenny Cooper and Thierry Henry providing the most production.
“(New York) is a team that we have a lot of respect for, and a team we know has a lot of weapons on its side of the line,” KC coach Peter Vermes said.
Vermes’ club has allowed the fewest goals (26) in the league. Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, 2-0-1 with one goal allowed in his last three matches against New York, leads MLS with 14 shutouts.
“If not the best, it’s one of the best defenses in the league,” Henry said. “With them, 1-0 can be enough. Every single one of us, we have to be ready right from the start.”
Sporting KC playmaker Graham Zusi, the MLS assist leader with 15, has recorded either a goal or an assist in seven of his last nine league matches.
He’ll encounter a New York defensive unit expected to be without Brandon Barklage (plantar fascia injury) and Wilman Conde (personal reasons). Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza isn’t traveling to New York due to a sprained right ankle, according to the team’s official website.