Don't be fooled by smiles and post-game jersey exchanges. For ninety minutes on Wednesday night, New York and D.C. are going to go at each other with everything they've got. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)
Things had been looking up for the New York Red Bulls the last time they visited RFK Stadium to take on rival D.C. United. After a slow start to the season, the Red Bulls had won three in a row by a combined nine goals and tied the San Jose Earthquakes. Their offense looked unstoppable, and the defense was quickly developing into a cohesive unit. Then, on a rainy Sunday spring afternoon and seemingly without any particular reason, all of that changed when an entirely different Red Bulls team showed up to take on what has historically been their top rival in Major League Soccer.
D.C. United absolutely destroyed the Red Bulls on April 22 by a score of 4-1, with New York's only goal coming on a late free kick by Thierry Henry that was impressive despite being too little, too late. In their next match at Red Bull Arena, it looked like D.C. was going to coast to a similar result after scoring just thirty seconds in. However, New York battled back to take a 2-1 lead before half, which Jan Gunnar Solli increased to 3-1 in the fifty-fifth minute. Chris Pontius scored his second goal of the match shortly after, but D.C. was unable to pull level, which brings us to the third and final regular season meeting between the two teams this year.
The match on Wednesday night, which happens to be the 79th meeting between the two clubs across all competitions, will decide the winner of the Atlantic Cup, as well as crucial Eastern Conference and Supporters' Shield positioning. New York is currently in second place in the Eastern Conference, with D.C. five points behind in the fifth and final playoff spot. However, the Columbus Crew and Montreal Impact are both having strong midseason runs. If their improved form continues, DC, who has gone a bit cold after a strong start, will be fending them off for the remainder of the season. Thanks to the irregularities of MLS scheduling, DC played just two league matches in July, losing both of them. In fact, in the past two months, DC is just 2-4-1. Notably, all four losses came on the road, while the two wins and a tie were at home.
Needless to say, D.C. United is targeting three points from Wednesday's match. Manager Ben Olsen rested a couple of key regular starters away at Montreal over the weekend, bringing Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Ponitus off the bench for thirty minute stints in the second half. Yes, the same Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius who have given the Red Bulls fits this year, already with five goals and two assists between them. Nick DeLeon also had a great first match back in April against New York, but wasn't nearly as effective matched up against Brandon Barklage and Jan Gunnar Solli as opposed to Solli and Dane Richards.
New York is coming into the match after a messy hard fought 1-1 tie at Sporting Kansas City on Sunday night. While the turnaround may not be ideal, the Red Bulls will have the next two weeks off to recover and prepare for the final stretch of the regular season. Granted, the break comes during FIFA international dates, so most but not all players will get a rest. The Red Bulls have a chance to tie or even win if they don't concede an early goal with a lineup that will look significantly different from either previous matchup, notably with Mehdi Ballouchy and Dane Richards no longer with the team. Recent additions Sebastien Le Toux and Tim Cahill will likely need to have their best games yet if the Red Bulls want to steal three points. Thierry Henry will also re-join the starting lineup after missing Sunday's match to be with his family for the birth of his new baby boy.
Think the Red Bulls can come away with three points on the road against their rivals? Having second thoughts about the benefits of an unbalanced schedule? Let us know in the comments and be sure to check back for a live match thread Wednesday night.