With the international break over, the New York Red Bulls (14-9-9) have two matches left in the regular season. They're currently on a 14-match unbeaten streak, after defeating the Philadelphia Union, 1-0, on Oct 1. The Red Bulls are chasing the top spot in the Eastern Conference and a spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League. They're tied with NYCFC at 51 points apiece.
This weekend the Red Bulls take on Columbus Crew SC (8-12-12). This is the second meeting between the two sides this season. In June, they drew, 1-1, at MAPFRE Stadium.
Here are three key storylines heading into Sunday's match…
Will Columbus come out strong?
Last year, the Crew stormed through the playoffs, taking down the favored Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals and losing a tight match in the MLS Cup. With two matches remaining in the 2016 regular season, they've been eliminated from postseason contention and have nothing to play for.
According to Columbus manager Gregg Berhalter, "We had high expectations this season and it's plain and simple, we didn't meet those expectations."
Despite a disappointing season, Columbus still has one of MLS' best group of attackers and could surprise the playoffs bound Red Bulls. Will a team that has nothing to play for put up a fight on Sunday?
Can Mike Grella regain form?
It's hard to argue that Grella has taken a slight step back this season after bursting onto the scene in 2015. Last year, he scored nine goals and added seven assists, thriving as a winger in the high press. Grella had a fast start to the 2016 season, scoring six goals, but he hasn't scored since June. It's a combination of bad luck (he had forced two incredible saves in the Red Bulls' last match) and defenses focusing more on the 29-year old attacker following Lloyd Sam's trade to D.C. United.
Grella ultimately lost his spot in the starting lineup to rookie Alex Muyl and the recently acquired Daniel Royer. However, with Royer still recovering from an injury, Grella will get another chance to shine against the Crew.
"Grella's been a guy we've been counting on in a big way for two years," Jesse Marsch told Big Apple Soccer. "Frankly Mike's been incredibly sharp in training lately so I think we're all excited that he's back on track and ready to push hard and be ready for the postseason."
Will Ola Kamara play?
After Columbus gave away Designated Player Kei Kamara in a highly publicized trade, there were questions as to who would become the team's main goal scorer. Norwegian striker Ola Kamara has stepped into the role, scoring 15 goals in 24 appearances.
Despite his good form, Kamara has been benched by the Crew, playing 20 minutes in the last two matches. Berhalter claims he was injured and "was put on the lineup sheet just to put him there but he wasn't available for selection." It's a curious situation, and perhaps the mysterious "injury" (or suspension) will last through Sunday's match with the Red Bulls.
Adam Jahn would start in Kamara's probable absence. The 6-foot-3 target striker scored two goals on Wednesday against the Chicago Fire. The Red Bulls have struggled with big strikers, particularly on set pieces. While Jahn is a step down from Kamara, he could still present a problem for a back line that has been in flux this season.