There's a buzz about tonight's game that that's been relatively absent as of late. Maybe it's the confidence that comes with being undefeated at home with a favorable home schedule the rest of the way and an uncharacteristically healthy roster. Whatever the case, tonight's Red Bulls-Sporting Kansas City match-up feels a bit more playoff-y than past matches. Significantly moreso, even.
To recap what's at stake against the owners of the league's best road record this evening: With a win, the Red Bulls leapfrog both Sporting and the Chicago Fire into first place in the east and second place in the Supporters Shield race.
Very possibly, this could be the biggest match of the season thus far for the Red Bulls.
Consider the following: While first place has been on the line before and while players have returned from injury, with time running out in the season, not only does each game carry that much more importance in avoiding the road post-season, its high time the Red Bulls find out exactly who they are and build some momentum before the playoffs.
Through most of this season, strings of dominance have been marred by baffling away losses and comebacks that shouldn't have had to happen in the first place. Those poor performances, even if they are only for the first 30 minutes, betrays the team's paper strength. A 3-2 comeback victory over the Portland Timbers reminds you how much heart this team has in players like Thierry Henry, Dax McCarty and Tim Cahill (among others), but then you remember that same team (including the aforementioned Henry and Cahill) went down 2-0 to the 7-14-7 Portland Timbers. At home. An away draw against Sporting the first time around could be put into the "pro" column, but you'd be leaving out the fact the guys in (dark) blue couldn't muster a shot on target in 90 minutes.
Plenty don't hesitate to call the Red Bulls a "team of destiny," but one has to wonder how much they have in the destiny tank before the destiny runs out. This is the first meaningful home test for the team since the Houston Dynamo last month, and the Seattle Sounders before that.
If they can put on a solid performance, come away with three points and take over the top spot in the east, maybe "team of destiny" is earned, I certainly would have no issue anointing this team an MLS Cup favorite. If they have to rush around, clean up their own mistakes, before pulling it all together late in the game, I'll still be uneasy. A loss would be even worse.