Here we go.
Gone are the hot summer months and games being played in 100-degree heat, as today is the start of the race toward the 2012 Major League Soccer Playoffs. Lineup mainstays in the New York Red Bulls team such as Thierry Henry and Dax McCarty made one thing clear while speaking with reporters during the midweek: It's MLS Cup or bust for this squad. New York start the most pivotal stretch of the campaign against two clubs who would qualify for postseason play if the playoffs started today. First off is a home match against Columbus Crew.
3 thoughts heading into NY Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew: Different team
Columbus are no longer the hottest team in MLS after losing when away to New England Revolution on September 5, but make no mistake about the fact that the Crew are definitely not the team that lost 4-1 to New York at home back in the spring. Chris Birchall, Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuaín are now with Columbus, and all three have had a significant impact on a team that was thought to be in the middle of a "rebuilding process" not all that long ago. The Crew are also no strangers to picking up points on the road against quality opponents. Thus far this season, Columbus have earned a draw when away to San Jose Earthquakes, they beat the Sounders in Seattle, and they beat Sporting KC at Livestrong Sporting Park.
New York should also remember last year when Columbus scored a goal at the death to earn a draw at Red Bull Arena.
3 thoughts heading into NY Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew: Backe's choice
The Red Bulls haven't played a match since August 29, and the only New York player to return from international duty with an injury concern is left back Roy Miller (groin). Miller had recently lost his spot in the starting eleven to Wilman Conde, who played extremely well in his two August appearances at left back. Even Rafa Marquez, who has played just 25 minutes since mid-July, will be on the bench. Marquez is not expected to start, but he should be able to go for at least 20 to 30 minutes.
Head coach Hans Backe can assemble a lineup that would, if his squad was (mostly) healthy, be chosen for a playoff match. One could argue that every game for New York is a postseason contest at this point, with first place in the MLS East and the Supporters' Shield both within reach. The team can afford no mistakes, and that includes all decisions made by the manager; his starting lineup, his tactics and, yes, the substitutions he chooses during matches.
No pressure, Hans.
3 thoughts heading into NY Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew: Prediction
Two teams, New York and Houston, remain undefeated at home as fall approaches. Now is not the time for RBNY to be dropping points while hosting matches. Red Bull Arena has been a true fortress for the Red Bulls in 2012, and that's a trend that needs to continue if New York are going to be more than a one-and-done playoff team. Columbus are undeniably a talented side. They're also the exact type of opponent New York must defeat in matches that will take place in September, October, November and hopefully one game in December.
These are the Red Bulls coming off of a long break, so you can be sure that New York supporters will find themselves frustrated at least a little bit on Saturday evening. It wouldn't even shock me to see the Crew jump out to a 1-0 advantage in the first 20 minutes of play. With that said, I just can't see a rested and completely healthy Thierry Henry not leading this team to victory. A goal in the final ten minutes puts New York up 2-1, a lead they hold until the final whistle.