The New York Red Bulls take on local rivals in the Philadelphia Union at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. While matches between the two clubs used to be marquee events, the rivalry has lost some luster with the arrival of New York City FC and the reemergence of D.C. United.
Their previous meeting this season resulted in a 2-2 draw, with the Union coming back from a two-goal deficit. They also met in the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup, with the Union overcoming yet another deficit (a common theme for the Red Bulls' opponents this season).
The Red Bulls play the Union two times in the next month as the regular season comes to a close. Both sides are securely in the playoff picture, so now they're fighting for the best possible seed.
Here are three key storylines heading into Sunday's match…
Can the Red Bulls stop the counter?
In the two previous matches, Philadelphia thrived on the counter attack. It's no secret how to beat the Red Bulls (or any gegenpressing team), and they've done a poor job of maintaining composure late in games.
Chris Pontius has scored three goals this season against the Red Bulls, usually entering the box as a late, unmarked runner. He's been able to take advantage of a defense that misses its marks and is outnumbered, sneaking in at the back post. While with D.C. United last year, the 29-year old midfielder was considering retirement after dealing with two surgeries. However, he's thrived in Philadelphia, scoring 10 goals and leading the Union into the playoffs.
C.J. Sapong and Fabian Herbers will also present a challenge to a tired Red Bulls defense that has been pushed to the limit by injuries and a congested schedule. Center back Aurelien Collin continues to pull both league and cup duty, but he'll get a break with the upcoming two-week international break.
The race for the top seed in the East
The Red Bulls are currently in a three-horse race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference with Toronto FC and New York City FC. All three teams have three matches remaining and are separated by a single point. The Supporters' Shield is out of reach, but home field advantage through the Conference Finals, a first round bye and a potential spot in the CONCACAF Champions League is still up for grabs.
If the Red Bulls are able to finish in first place (and FC Dallas clinches the Shield), then they'll qualify for the Champions League for the second year in a row. However, if Toronto wins, then things get a little complicated because a Canadian team cannot take an American bid. The spots will go to the best American teams in the Supporters' Shield race, in which the Red Bulls are currently third. Depending on how the rest of the season goes and how many trophies Dallas wins, then there could be anywhere from one to three spots that are reallocated to the table.
Simply put, the Red Bulls are in good shape if they win their next three matches. If not, they can still qualify for the Champions League with four to six points, but then they become more reliant on other teams stumbling.
The Golden Boot
Bradley Wright-Phillips leads MLS this season with 20 goals, one more than NYCFC striker David Villa. He's been the catalyst for the Red Bulls' push to the top of the Eastern Conference, with 11 goals in his last 10 matches. If he continues to score over the last three regular season matches, then he'll win his second Golden Boot in the last three seasons. Only four other players in league history have led MLS in goals multiple times,
Wright-Phillips has scored three career goals against the Union and will get his opportunities against a Union side that has only held one opponent scoreless since early August. The center back pairing of Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez is big and physical, but the English striker has an innate ability to find space and get open. Additionally, he is the first line of defense and is frequently responsible for forcing turnovers in the attacking third. As observed by Philly Voice, the Red Bulls rely on funneling center backs into the center of the field, which will usually force a bad pass or a clearance that directly benefits Wright-Phillips.