The New York Red Bulls begin the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs with a two-leg series against the Montreal Impact. Montreal won its play-in game against D.C. United, 4-2, at RFK Stadium. The Red Bulls earned a bye to the conference semifinals by finishing in first place in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.
This is the fourth meeting between the two sides this season. Montreal won the first match in March, 3-0. The Red Bulls won at home in August and September, by 3-1 and 1-0 score lines.
Here are three key storylines heading into Sunday's match…
Is this the year?
The Red Bulls have never won MLS Cup in the team's 21-year history. Despite being one of the league's most consistent teams, they've been unable to put things together in the playoffs and only made the final once (losing to the Columbus Crew in 2008). Perhaps this is the year because the Red Bulls roster has never been deeper. Even though three players are out with season ending injuries, there are still several starting quality players available on a bench that includes two Designated Players.
The team is currently firing on all cylinders, enjoying a 20-match unbeaten streak stretching back to July. While the Red Bulls have been far from perfect over this stretch (giving up far too many leads and dropping points), they deserve credit for going half of the season without losing a game. The MLS Cup Playoffs are usually won by the team that is peaking at the right time, and the Red Bulls fit that description.
Until recently, Didier Drogba's MLS tenure would have been considered a success. He scored 21 goals in 33 appearances, and earned Montreal its first playoff victory last season. After being left out of the lineup for a match against Toronto FC on Oct 14, Drogba refused a spot in the match day lineup. He also traveled but did not play in the mid-week playoff match against D.C. United, claiming a lack of fitness and a back injury.
The Impact has been doing fine without Drogba, sporting a better record when he is not in the lineup. Striker Matteo Mancosu, on loan from Serie A club Bologna, scored two goals in the playoff win over D.C. United. Midfielder Ignacio Piatti had another standout season with 17 goals and six assists.
Still, there is a report that Drogba will be ready for the match against the Red Bulls. While he's not in form and Montreal is arguably a more cohesive unit without him, the Ivorian striker has a history of scoring key goals. If Drogba is willing to come off the bench and contribute, then he could be a major factor in the series.
Potential Royer return
Daniel Royer joined the Red Bulls in August after transferring in from FC Midtjylland. The Austrian winger made an immediate adjustment to MLS, quickly earning a spot in the starting lineup and scoring the game winning goal in a 1-0 win over the Impact in September. He's a perfect fit for the high press, and brings a more direct dimension to the Red Bulls' attack.
Unfortunately, Royer sustained a hamstring injury at the end of September, and has yet to return. According to Jesse Marsch, the winger is back in training and "is going to be ready for [Montreal]."
It's unlikely that Royer will be fit enough to go the full 90 minutes. In that case, Mike Grella and Alex Muyl will start on the wings, as they have earned Jesse Marsch's trust in their abilities. It would be a smart, safe decision as Montreal features fast wingers and the Red Bulls will need plenty of help on defense. Some are still hopeful for Gonzalo Veron to receive more playing time, but it appears that is not a possibility for the rest of the 2016 season.