In a season that has been crammed full of "must win" games for the New York Red Bulls, Saturday's encounter with fellow MLS playoff chasers Portland Timbers may be the most "must win" of all. The Red Bulls returned home on a high from Dallas last Sunday after a gritty, ugly 1-0 win, only to come crashing back down to earth with a thud on Wednesday, when they were torn apart by a rampant Real Salt Lake within 20 minutes. To be fair, the Red Bulls shaky backline shared a hefty portion of blame for the defeat on Wednesday (and yes, Rafael Marquez, you played your part as well).
Things turned even uglier in the locker room after the match, when Marquez tore into his teammates, Tim Ream in particular. Marquez's stunningly selfish comments inevitably reverberated around the Twitterverse, creating a mini media firestorm that the team simply doesn't need as it desperately searches for a path into the playoffs (then again, firestorms have been known on occasion to have a regenerative effect).
After calling a team meeting on Friday, Hans Backe handed Marquez a one game suspension - the least he deserved and perhaps a blessing in disguise for the Red Bulls, considering the Mexican's poor form throughout the 2011 season. Things got even uglier later in the day, when stories surfaced on Big Apple Soccer and the New York Post's Extra Time blog that called into question the players' relationship with the Red Bull front office, Erik Solér in particular. With all of this controversy swirling around the team, the players will have a mammoth task to put the external distractions out of their minds for 90 minutes and simply focus on the matter at hand.
Marquez's suspension and Chris Albright's absence mean that Carlos Mendes is likely to be slotted in at left back once again, in place of the still injured Roy Miller. To his credit, Mendes has done an admirable job of late when asked to fill in anywhere along the backline. Stephen Keel, who was fairly steady in Dallas, is likely to partner Ream in central defense. Apart from that, fans should expect few changes from the team that faced Real Salt Lake. Juan Agudelo should be Backe's first option if he feels that he needs a spark off the bench, with Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers preferred in the starting XI. For all their struggles against RSL, the Red Bulls' did create several good scoring opportunities in the second half. As has been the case since early spring, it's in the defensive half that they've really let themselves down.
Portland, meanwhile, arrive in New York in the wake of a disappointing 1-1 home draw against San Jose Earthquakes. Khari Stephenson's 70th minute strike kept the Timbers from further solidifying their playoff position following a recent run that saw them beat New England Revolution and Chivas USA at home and earn a hard-fought draw against Philadelphia Union on the road. Undefeated in five games, Portland has benefited from the emergence of rookie Darlington Nagbe, who scored his second goal of the season against New England before providing the assist for Kenny Cooper's strike on Saturday.
After a tumultuous middle of the season that had some doubting whether John Spencer had a future in the Rose City, Portland have pulled themselves together and are fighting tooth and nail with the Red Bulls and several other clubs for the last few playoff spots. If Portland have one glaring weakness, it's their away form. They've only managed one victory on their travels this season (1-8-4). Then again, Vancouver Whitecaps came to Red Bull Arena winless and nearly walked away with all three points, so all bets are off.
This is a massive, massive game for both clubs. With a win, the Red Bulls can get themselves right back in the thick of the playoff conversation, exorcise at least some of Wednesday's demons and hit the road feeling that they still have an excellent opportunity to be playing late into October and possibly November. A Portland win would put the MLS newcomers in a great position as they come down the stretch, though they only have one regular season home game remaining. A draw would probably suit Portland a lot more than it would New York, though it would take the Red Bulls above Chicago Fire in the all-important "most draws in an MLS season" race.
The match, a 7:30PM kickoff, will be broadcast locally on MSG. As always, we'll have a live game thread up and running here at Once a Metro.