The New York Red Bulls have two games in hand on their closest challengers in the Eastern Conference - and they will be played in the next week. First up is Montreal Impact, a team capable of muscling into the pack teams chasing the top seed in the East if it can generate positive results from the two games it plays in the next four days (RBNY is up again on October 14, to play Toronto; L'Impact must travel to Colorado for a match on October 10).
For RBNY, this is the second game in less than a week (it played Columbus on October 3), but there is a week to recover beckoning after this match, so perhaps the necessity for resting or rotating the squad is minimal. Indeed, the pattern of substitutions followed by stand-in head coach Denis Hamlett against the Crew (Jesse Marsch was suspended for excessive arm-waving in RBNY's preceding game), suggested the team was following something akin to a plan to limit time for key players.
Lloyd Sam was substituted in the 67th minute, Bradley Wright-Phillips followed 10 minutes later, and Mike Grella was the last man to hit the bench, swapped out for Sean Davis in the 88th minute. Three of RBNY's core four of attacking starters - including both the team's goalscorers on the night - cooling their heels before the final whistle. One interpretation might be there was a plan in place to keep them protected for the midweek match ahead.
That's the interpretation this column chooses to get behind. With a full week ahead to rest, Montreal looking a lot like one of the most dangerous teams in the league now it has Didier Drogba on board, and the need to maximize points gained at him because two of the last three games of the regular season will be played on the road - the prediction is Marsch sticks as closely as possible to the starting lineup that has done most of the work required to get RBNY to its current lofty position in the standings.
The back line will be missing Matt Miazga, so Ronald Zubar - whose partnership with Damien Perrinelle showed promise against Columbus - can be expected to retain the starting role most assumed he'd hold throughout the season.
The only real question mark about player availability concerns Kemar Lawrence, the surprise absentee from the Columbus game. We are told he was called away for "personal reasons", but Marsch has spent the last couple of days talking as though his left back was absent for weeks, not a couple of days. Still, the exaggerated attention being paid to ensuring he is fit and well after a weekend away appears to have won the coach's approval - as he told BigAppleSoccer.com:
Mentally, I don't think it was the easiest time period for him to be off but physically I think he needed it in a lot of ways. He looks fresh and ready to go.
RBNY could stick with Connor Lade on the left of defense and Sal Zizzo as starting right back, but this column thinks Lawrence will be ready to take his place in the lineup at kick-off.