Rookie of the Year candidate Sapong has been a difference maker for Kansas City
A late season run of three wins in five games has put the New York Red Bulls in an excellent position to secure a spot in the 2011 MLS Playoffs, but there's still some work to do over the remaining two games before the team can guarantee its progress to the postseason. The work begins this afternoon at 4PM Eastern in Kansas City, with the Red Bulls' first ever visit to Livestrong Sporting Park, before concluding on Thursday with the visit of Philadelphia Union to Harrison.
After a very difficult beginning to the season that saw them embark on a marathon road trip, Sporting Kansas City has benefited from a huge helping of home cooking during the second half of the 2011 campaign. The new stadium has been a bit of a fortress for Peter Vermes' team, with FC Dallas and Seattle Sounders the only teams that have managed to escape with all three points. Though Teal Bunbury came into the season grabbing the lion's share of the team's headlines, it is the emergence of his rookie strike partner C.J. Sapong that has really turned Kansas City's fortunes around. Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza have also enjoyed breakout years, bringing some much-needed bite and solidity to the center of midfield.
The Red Bulls come into this match as close to full strength as they've been all season. Of the players who have seen significant minutes in 2011, only Chris Albright will be missing this afternoon. Rafael Marquez returned from Mexican National Team duty unscathed, as did Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream from the US National Team's recent group of friendlies (though the latter may still be suffering from bruised confidence). There were some concerns about Joel Lindpere's status earlier in the week, after the MLS website listed him as suspended due to yellow card accumulation, but he will in fact be available for selection and will almost certainly start. Hans Backe has shown little inclination to stray from his favored 4-4-2 formation or his favored forward partnership of Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers, so the New York lineup and tactical approach should be easy to predict.
The Red Bulls' last visit to Kansas City was one of their most emphatic wins of 2010, as they capitalized on defensive mistakes and a Jimmy Nielsen goalkeeping error to win 3-0 at Community America Ballpark. It's highly unlikely they'll enjoy such an easy time of it today. With a full stadium backing them and a postseason berth on the line, Sporting has as much to play for as the Red Bulls do.
With Houston Dynamo's win over Portland Timbers last night, New York took another small step forward toward a playoff spot, and a win this afternoon would virtually guarantee them of postseason play, regardless of other results. A draw could leave them with some work to do on Thursday, while a loss would have fans biting their nails. The math is simple: the Red Bulls will either do enough over the next six days to make the playoffs or be the last club left out. It's the difference between a disappointing regular season and (fairly or unfairly) being labelled MLS' biggest flop.