Fresh off a hard fought 1-0 victory over the New England Revolution, the New York Red Bulls are headed across the country to take on the Vancouver Whitecaps.
With seven regular season matches remaining, the Red Bulls find themselves in a comfortable third place in the Eastern Conference. They're only three points out of the top spot, while currently enjoying a nine-match unbeaten streak.
It's been a tumultuous season due to a succession of devastating injuries and disastrous collapses, but the Red Bulls have weathered most of the storms. Damien Perrinelle and Dax McCarty appear to have made successful returns from injury, which will enable the club to put its best foot forward in the CONCACAF Champions League and MLS Cup Playoffs.
By comparison, Vancouver is having a poor-to-mediocre season. The Whitecaps are in ninth place in the Western Conference and haven't won a MLS match since July 13. While they're only four points out of a playoff spot, it appears that the wheels are falling off. Key players are publicly discussing leaving the club and local media is speculating on head coach Carl Robinson's job security.
A win against the Red Bulls could be the boost Vancouver needs to turn things around and qualify for the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Here are three key storylines heading into Saturday's match…
Who will start at goalkeeper for the Red Bulls?
Goalkeeper Luis Robles was held out of practice on Wednesday due to an MCL strain, sustained in last weekend's win over New England. He was wearing a brace on his left knee, according to Big Apple Soccer.
If he does miss the next match, not only will the Red Bulls be without one of the league's best shot stoppers, but Robles' "Ironman" streak will come to an end. Since joining the Red Bulls in 2012, Robles had appeared in 133 consecutive regular season matches, a league record. Despite the injury, Jesse Marsch believes the streak will stay intact, telling NewYorkRedBulls.com, "I think he'll be ready to go."
Should Robles be unable to play, Ryan Meara will most likely start in goal. Meara has made two senior team appearances this season (in the Open Cup and Champions League) and has been a key player with the reserve team. He's made one league appearance since his rookie season in 2012, a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire while on loan with New York City FC last year.
It's possible that serviceable, veteran backup Kyle Reynish gets the start, but the Red Bulls have been more willing to give the younger Meara match experience.
Will Alphonso Davies make an appearance?
Vancouver has one of the most exciting prospects in MLS, someone "whose every appearance sparks thunderous applause." Alphonso Davies is a 15-year old (born in 2000) forward/midfielder who has already made four appearances since signing a professional contract with the Whitecaps in July. The Canadian youth international has impressed with his ability to create chances and fit in with seasoned professionals.
"I just like to see him on the field," according to Whitecaps head coach and former Red Bulls midfielder Carl Robinson. "He brings an energy."
Vancouver is being very careful to bring Davies along slowly, not allowing him to speak to the press. MLS has a tumultuous history with young prospects burning out, with the most famous example being Freddy Adu. However, the Whitecaps are slumping, and they may need to start relying on their teenager to provide a spark. The Red Bulls have struggled with counter-attacking players in the past, and Davies could make a big impact on Saturday.
Who will replace Sacha Kljestan?
Observers were surprised when United States national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called Kljestan into the squad that will face St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago in World Cup Qualifiers. It's not that the 30-year old midfielder is undeserving of inclusion (he's being discussed as a MLS MVP candidate), but many believed that his window had closed.
Kljestan had not received a call up since 2014, despite thriving at attacking midfielder, currently a position in need of depth for the national team.
He received a call up on Monday after not being included on the initial roster, replacing one of the injured players (most likely Jermaine Jones). While it's an incredible honor for both the player and the club that aided his return to the national team pool, the Red Bulls now have to find a suitable replacement for the match against Vancouver.
Dax McCarty's return from injury gives Marsch some flexibility. He told Big Apple Soccer that McCarty could slide back into his defensive midfielder spot, with Sean Davis or Felipe moving into Kljestan's attacking role.
Newcomers Danny Royer and Omer Damari were also mentioned as possibilities. Gonzalo Veron could also start next to Bradley Wright-Phillips, although it seems unlikely as he's been limited two cameo appearances in the last two matches.
Whomever the Red Bulls select next match, it's going to be difficult to replace Kljestan's production and general importance to the squad. He's constantly involved in the attack and has developed a strong relationship with Bradley Wright-Phillips and Alex Muyl. In his absence, it's likely that there will be a heavier reliance on long balls and wing play.