How the mighty have fallen: the 2013 Supporters' Shield winners and the 2013 MLS Cup champs haven't had a spectacular 2014.
Since cornering the 2013 market for MLS titles, both teams have exited CONCACAF Champions League at the group stage, and neither made much noise in US Open Cup. The New York Red Bulls bowed out of the Shield race quite some time ago, sneaking into the playoffs by winning seven of their last 12 games - all those wins, not coincidentally, coming at home. Sporting Kansas City had a playoff place virtually assured by the end of July: a point proven by the fact the club has accumulated just 11 points from the last 36 it has contested.
On their day, either of these can mix it with the best in the league. But those days have been too scarce this year. They are both limping into the playoffs, hoping to shake off the frustrations of a season which each had hoped would yield better results.
Two good teams in decline or just playing possum? We'll find out in the post-season. For now, here's what we do and do not know about them heading into match 34 of their respective 2014 regular seasons...
Here's what we know:
- All eyes on the Englishmen
RBNY and KC share a bright spot: high-scoring Englishmen who have given fans something to cheer during an up-and-down year.
Bradley Wright-Phillips and Dominic Dwyer are the single-season scoring record-holders for their respective clubs, and each would like to cap this regular season with a hat-trick.
For Dwyer, three goals would catch him up to BWP in the Golden Boot race (though, as it stands, BWP would win the title - assuming the league is still using assists as the first tiebreaker in this contest).
For BWP, three goals would get him to 28: the greatest number ever scored by anyone in a MLS regular season.
These are pretty tall orders, even for two extremely capable goal scorers playing against unreliable defenses (in fairness, KC has posted three shutouts in its last five games). One cannot simply expect players to score hat-tricks, but both sets of fans will be hoping their guy has that kind of day.
- RBNY is awful on the road
The 2014 New York Red Bulls are terrible travelers.
Here is a list of teams in MLS which have secured fewer points away from home than RBNY this season: Houston Dynamo (11), Colorado Rapids (9), San Jose Earthquakes (9), and Montreal Impact (5). That is not a selection of the league's finest teams.
A draw would at least break RBNY out of its current tie with Chicago Fire and Chivas USA, the other teams to have collected 13 points on their travels this season. And a win would put the Red Bulls level with Philadelphia Union (unless Philly ties or beats Columbus in its regular season finale).
Win, lose, or draw, however, there won't be a team in the playoffs this year with a worse record on the road than RBNY.
- KC isn't great at home
Heading into this match, KC has more points from its road games (25) than those at home (24). A home win over RBNY would correct that imbalance, but would still see Sporting trot into the post-season with the worst home record (at least in terms of points collected, and what other metric trumps that?) of any team in the playoffs.
Here's what we don't know:
- Will Titi make it to 100 combined goals & assists for RBNY?
Thierry Henry has played 130 competitive games for the Red Bulls. He has scored 52 goals and been credited with 44 assists: a combined total of 96 goals to which the captain has contributed directly.
Can he make it an even 100 before
he retires whatever he might be doing with his time in 2015? Probably not in this game, but he can at least inch closer to the total.
No Red Bull or MetroStar has ever been credited with statistical contribution to 100 goals in competitive games for the club.
Henry doesn't seem to care much about personal achievements for RBNY. But he's a record-breaking contributor to the team's history nonetheless, and 100 combined goals and assists would be a fitting landmark for this club's King of Goals to reach.
- Does the result of this game matter at all?
The match is being billed as a "must win" for both teams, on the grounds that KC will clinch third place in the Eastern Conference with a win, and the Red Bulls could clinch third or fourth if they get three points.
In the sense that third means avoiding the wild-card/play-in/whatever-the-hell-we're-calling-it fourth vs. fifth game, the result of this match matters. Both teams would certainly prefer to have a rest.
But KC has been banged up all season, and is still a little better on the road than it is at home. And RBNY's best work this year came during an awfully crowded September. Both these teams seem to respond better when they're under pressure, so neither need be particularly perturbed if it finds itself handed a tougher-than-preferred playoff schedule - the extra work might be what is required to turn around an otherwise lackluster year.
- What is Tim Cahill's role?
Last time we saw Cahill in a RBNY jersey, he was trudging off the field after putting in three minutes, a bad tackle, and getting a red card for his trouble.
His last start for the club was in the 4-0 thumping the team received in LA.
He led the club's triumphant end-of-season run to the 2013 Supporters' Shield as, primarily, a forward. This year, he has been mostly a midfielder, latterly a substitute.
Cahill has said he just wants to play, and he's not too fussy about where that might be on the field.
RBNY hasn't seen the best of Cahill this season. He's not been used up front often enough to be an effective goal scorer, and his work in midfield has not lifted the team in any sustained, or even noticeable, way.
There is still time to flip the script. The playoffs allow for five or six games to change the interpretation of an entire year. This game isn't Cahill's last chance to write himself into a starring role for RBNY in 2014 - but it is the dress rehearsal.