It has taken an extraordinary 14-game unbeaten streak to do it, but the New York Red Bulls have definitively put their atrocious 1-6 start to 2016 behind them. With two matches remaining in the regular season, they are top of the Eastern Conference and (just; probably not for much longer) still in with a mathematical chance of winning the Supporters' Shield.
The international break gave most of the team (except for Sacha Kljestan and Kemar Lawrence, away with USMNT and Jamaica respectively) the chance to rest up a bit and take a breath. And since the Red Bulls last played, their next opponent - Columbus Crew - has been eliminated from the playoffs, after being held to 2-2 draw by Chicago Fire on October 13.
Given the effort and focus expended to repair the damage done to the season by that terrible start, and given the Crew's season-long struggles, this game has the makings of a trap for RBNY.
The Red Bulls are well aware of the danger. Columbus has nothing left to play for but pride and the satisfaction of spoiling RBNY's hope of winning the Eastern Conference to clinch a return to CONCACAF Champions League. But that is all the incentive the Crew needs to show up and put a dent in the Red Bulls recently-refurbished season. And the Red Bulls know it.
"I like how every single professional team, no matter if the game counts or not, you need to be professional. You got to do your best in every single game - they will come here and try to put our season into a wrong way," said Felipe, "We're going to be ready, training hard and Jesse has given us the advice for this game and the team is responding."
There is a strong possibility that Gregg Berhalter might not play his veterans in this match, giving younger players a chance to prove their worth for next season. Felipe made clear that RBNY's focus is not affected by the perceived strength or experience of the opposition: "It doesn't matter. We need to think about us and think about our season. We are at home and it's a regular season game and we expect our stadium to be full. We still want to win and put ourselves into a great position and keep our confidence and belief strong."
Luis Robles echoed his teammate's thoughts: "I think the main focus is what we are doing. We need to be mindful of their situation and that they are a very good team. Since they have nothing to lose that makes them a dangerous team," said RBNY's veteran 'keeper, "If we continue to have the right mentality and the right focus, continue to build on the focus and the performance on the last couple of months, we should be ready for the playoffs."
Jesse Marsch is certainly not taking the Crew for granted: "We are expecting Columbus' best, period. There were a few big players that didn't play in the last match against Chicago, whether they were injured or not," said Marsch, "But we know Columbus well enough that they will bring their best to New York as well.
There is enough between us two teams in the last two years that we would be foolish if they don't bring their best. We want to show that and we want to be challenged and show it out on the field - and we know that we are facing a very good team. We've heard they have some injuries, but still Gregg [Berhalter] is a very good coach and works a very good team."
The concern after any break is that the team might lose its rhythm. Marsch is aware of the danger: "We are in a good place and we are going to push hard.
There is no doubt that this group is focused and concentrated on all the right things. The two weeks has given us a chance to recharge the battery a little bit, both physically and mentally. But come Sunday the guys will get out there and be ready to give it their all."
Meanwhile, Alex Muyl's preparation has been boosted by a gift from Lionel Messi. He has a new pair of Adidas boots to celebrate his selection as one of 10 players featured in the Backed By Messi campaign. "They are very comfortable and I will use them in the game this Sunday," he promised.
The trap is set. Columbus is coming in with nothing but a point to prove. RBNY knows it cannot let up now, cannot ease off in the chase for the Eastern Conference title and the advantages that will bring to this season (home advantage for a while in the playoffs) and next (a CCL berth). The Crew spoiled last year for the Red Bulls by knocking them out of the post-season. RBNY is working hard to see that doesn't happen again.