With an unbalanced schedule this season, the New York Red Bulls are lucky to avoid a trip west to play the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field. Instead, New York hosts the Timbers tonight at 7 pm EST at Red Bull Arena, where they will look to continue two notable streaks. First, the Red Bulls are undefeated at home in 2012 through eleven of seventeen matches. On the flip side, the Portland Timbers have yet to win on the road this season, and have a miserable away record of 0-3-8.
Portland is coming in after a midweek trip to Toronto FC, where they managed a 2-2 draw with goals from Sal Zisso and the exciting youngster Darlington Nagbe, one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for the Timbers. Due to the wonders of Major Leage Soccer scheduling, Portland has played just three competitive matches since July 21 when FC Dallas beat up on the Timbers, 5-0. Since then, Portland has lost to Chivas, 1-0, and tied FC Dallas and Toronto FC 1-1 and 2-2, respectively.
Portland lines up in a 4-2-3-1, with Kris Boyd, the team's leading scorer with seven goals, up top. Darlington Nagbe and Franck Songo'o are top attacking midfield choices for the club, while Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara typically line up as defensive midfielders. Jewsbury can get forward and spring the attack yet rarely fails to track back and break up plays. Chara is a physical presence in the midfield, and has seven yellow cards, second most in MLS, to show for his efforts. The battle to control the midfield for Jewsbury and Chara against Dax McCarty and Tim Cahill will easily be one of the most interesting and fun things to watch tonight.
The Timbers most glaring weakness is their defense. Their Goals Allowed Per Game is second highest in Major League Soccer. The only team with a more porous defense is the current league basement dweller Toronto FC. Their goals scored is third lowest in the league, but this is largely because they have scored just four goals in eleven matches away from Jeld-Wen Field. They are moderately better on the attack at home with nineteen goals, just missing the top ten in this category.
Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, recently acquired from the Montreal Impact, has already faced the Red Bulls three times this season. The Red Bulls scored eight times against the Jamaican international in those matchups, and will look to add at least a couple of tallies as Major League Soccer has announced "goals scored" as the main playoff seeding tiebreaker this season.
New York is coming off a much needed 2-0 home win against the Houston Dynamo, righting the ship after two consecutive losses for the first time since March. The Red Bulls currently sit five points out of first place in the Eastern Conference and six points behind the Earthquakes, the current Supporters' Shield leader.
Rafa Marquez, Ryan Meara, and new acquisition Lloyd Sam will be unavailable Sunday night. Bill Gaudette will start in goal after an impressive performance for the Puerto Rican national team in a 2-1 friendly loss to Spain midweek. Brandon Barklage will return from injury on Sunday night, but Manager Hans Backe has said his role will be off the bench until he is back to full fitness.
Anything less than three points will be a major setback for the Red Bulls as they have to travel to Kansas City and D.C. next Sunday and Wednesday (more thanks to MLS scheduling). It will be interesting to see how Portland approaches the match. Do they sit back and defend, hoping to limit New York's quality chances? Or do they get forward and try to put some pressure on a Red Bulls backline that has been highly inconsistent, albeit largely due to injuries? New York, on the other hand, will look to build a large and early lead and show off the depth to continue slowly to work recently injured players back into the mix.
Think the Red Bulls have three points in the bag for tonight? Would a loss or draw raise a major red flag entering the final stretch of the 2012 regular season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.