The New York Red Bulls are as healthy and close to full strength as they have been all season, and the timing could not be better with Eastern Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City finally making their first trip of the 2012 season to Harrison, NJ. Kansas City is currently two points ahead of the Red Bulls, so a win would provide much needed points and momentum for New York heading down the final stretch of the season.
In their first match on August 22 at Livestrong Sporting Park, the Red Bulls lacked in the attack and did not have a single shot on goal but managed a 1-1 draw with a couple of key saves by goalkeeper Bill Gaudette and a Kansas City own goal off of Kei Kamara. Coming off an impressive 3-1 victory over Columbus on Saturday, the Red Bulls offense should be a greater factor on Wednesday night, but their inconsistent defense will need to contain an opponent who is often able to keep possession and dictate the flow of the game.
While New York's undefeated record so far at Red Bull Arena this season is frequently mentioned, the Red Bulls are also undefeated when they play midweek. In five Wednesday league matches, New York has gone 2-0-3, including two draws on the road against the Vancouver Whitecaps and D.C. United.
With the return of Rafa Marquez from a string of knocks and injuries, the Red Bulls are nearly at full strength aside from left back Roy Miller who returned from international duty with Costa Rica with an injured groin. Miller, however, has recently fallen out of favor after an abysmal performance against the Portland Timbers when he was replaced just thirty-six minutes into the match. Wiman Conde has since slid over to the left to allow Heath Pearce to take command of the defense centrally.
Kansas City has also dealt with various injured players including Bobby Convey and Teal Bunbury who will both miss Wednesday' match. Bunbury's injury actually came against the Red Bulls when he tore his ACL leaping to make an assist on an early goal, an unfortunate turn for a young player who had fought to earn a regular starting spot over fellow national team prospect CJ Sapong.
There have been some fiery exchanges the past two seasons between these teams, and as Major League Soccer has moved to an unbalanced schedule and teams in the same conference meet three times instead of two, expect the match on Wednesday and then their third and final regular season game later in October to be especially physical and hard fought affairs.
The abundance of options for Hans Backe to choose from each match gives New York a real shot at overtaking Kansas City to win the Eastern Conference and possibly even challenge the San Jose Earthquakes for the Supporters' Shield. After the win against Columbus on Saturday night, however, team captain Thierry Henry said in an interview he was not getting caught up in the standings yet:
"But before the thing about first place like i said to you... we have to go into the game against Kansas City and not concede after five minutes... That's the only thing that I'm thinking about before I think about Kansas City and think about being first."
New York got very lucky to come away with a draw against Kansas City in August. Despite the Red Bulls largely impressive record both at home and in midweek matches this year, with they playoffs approaching they cannot expect to fall behind early to a team that can defend as well as Kansas City and come away with a result.