Last Sunday, the New York Red Bulls had a chance to make a statement to the league and cement their claim on first place in the Eastern Conference. Using one of their games in hand, the Red Bulls traveled to Gillette Stadium, where they promptly lost to the New England Revolution, 2-1.
As luck would have it, they now have another chance to take first place, if they can claim three points against the Portland Timbers.
Making the task more difficult for Jesse Marsch and his team are the suspensions of Connor Lade and Dax McCarty due to yellow card accumulation. The latter was key in thwarting a number of New England attacks, most notably when he dropped back from the wall on a Lee Nguyen free kick to deflect it wide of the goal. Nonetheless, Marsch remains confident in the depth of his squad.
"We'll have guys ready to go. I'm not concerned about that. We've got a deep group here... so it'll be a good opportunity for some different guys to step on the field and now show what they are about."
This could provide the opportunity for Sean Davis or even Designated Player Gonzalo Veron to start, depending on where Marsch decides to position Sacha Kljestan. Marsch has been reluctant to tinker with his midfield in recent weeks, but the suspensions should force his hand.
The Red Bulls are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference, with 45 points. They are tied with D.C. on points, and are only one point behind New England. Right on their heels is the Columbus Crew, with 44 points. The Red Bulls have an advantage over these three Eastern Conference contenders, however, as they have two games in hand.
[Update: After Saturday's games, RBNY is third in the East - still just a point behind the Revs and now two points behind the most recent pretenders to the Eastern Conference throne, Columbus. The Red Bulls have three games in hand on those rivals - at least until the game in Portland is played.]
While the Red Bulls fight for first in the East, the Timbers are trying to keep their playoff hopes alive. Currently in sixth place in the Western Conference, the Timbers have a chance to leap frog Sporting Kansas City and grab fifth place. Winless in their last three, they'll be desperate to earn all three points at home.
[Update: After Saturday, the Timbers are still sixth in the West, but it will take a big win over RBNY to overturn the goal difference and goals scored tiebreakers held by fifth-placed KC. Still, Portland will be no less desperate to get back to winning ways - San Jose has flatlined recently, but Real Salt Lake is showing signs of life and Houston could yet mount an assault on the final playoff place in the Western Conference also.]
Players to Watch
The home side is second worst in goal scoring this season, better only than the Colorado Rapids. With that being the case, the Caleb Porter is going to rely on Diego Valeri for creativity in his team. The Argentine midfielder leads the team with six assists, and should be its most constant threat. The Red Bulls will want Sacha Kljestan to keep playing the same way he has been for a few weeks now. The former Anderlecht midfielder has been in blazing hot form, running all over the field and creating chances. With Dax not playing, the midfield will rely a lot on Kljestan to establish a rhythm in the match.
The Timbers have been solid at home this season, but they haven't been able to rack up wins there. The Red Bulls are a completely different team when on the road, having conceded 22 of their 32 goals conceded away from Red Bull Arena. Portland's lack of goals this season should bode well for the Red Bulls, but this will still be a tough matchup. Score: 1-1 Tie.