The New York Red Bulls can see the finish line to their 2016 regular season. It will be down in Chester, Pennsylvania, where they will wrap up an up-and-down league campaign (well, it was more down-then-up) against the Philadelphia Union.
The 1-6 start to the season threatened to define RBNY's 2016. In point of fact, it has but not in the way that seemed likely when it was happening. This club has twice fallen down and never got back up in MLS: in 1999 as the MetroStars, when they started with a 3-1 record but spiraled for the rest of the season; in 2009, the year after going to the MLS Cup Final. For an uncomfortable few weeks, it seemed like there might a third season-long pratfall to add to the club's history. It didn't happen. Barring an improbable set of results this weekend, RBNY will enter the post-season as Eastern Conference champion.
The team has played almost the entire season with that terrible start hanging over it, but now it can be safely said it did not wreck the year. If anything, it seems to have been motivation.
"I would describe it like this: I would look at this as a two-year progression. There are two distinct different seasons involved. I think we've had good consistency with the players we have, the consistency on how we used these players, consistency on how we play and I have seen growth and development over that span," said Jesse Marsch, "With that being said, I am totally not satisfied with where we are at. I'm more hungry than ever - and this group is more hungry than ever - to find ways to achieve the ultimate success."
It that drive toward "ultimate success", aka MLS Cup, that will push the Red Bulls to pursue three points on Sunday against the Union. The team currently lies third in the Supporters' Shield table, and that is where it is likely to end the season, but a win would at least challenge the Colorado Rapids' hold on second place. And the higher up the table RBNY can climb, the better chance it gives itself of hosting MLS Cup at Red Bull Arena - if it gets that far.
Kemar Lawrence has eyes on a win and a more personal goal: getting on up on his Jamaica National Team colleague, goalkeeper Andre Blake. The Union 'keeper has has had a fantastic season, as Lawrence well knows.
"He's a great guy. He's a young guy. For him to be young and for him to listen and for him to take advice: I guess that's what makes him amazing. Anyone can talk to him and anyone can correct him," said Lawrence. "I'm very excited to see what his future is like. He's a great guy, but I hope he will be in goal when I face him so I can score against him."
Mike Grella also has goals on his mind. He scored for the first time in a while in last week's game against Columbus, and now he is keen to build on that performance heading into the post-season.
"Goals always help out any player, but I've been in a good place the last three weeks and the season is long and very hard," said Grella. "A lot of driving and the heat gets you in the middle of the summer, but I've been feeling great these last couple of weeks and ready to push on now. I have a lot more experience this time of year and when to push it or not to push it."
Philadelphia has its own incentives to perform well on Sunday: the match will be its regular-season home finale, and the team will be on the road for the first round of the playoffs whether it wins or loses (unless it loses by a very large margin and allows New England into the post-season at its expense). So this could be the last time the Union plays in front of its own fans this season. The team will want to make it a happy memory for the home crowd.
If you are joining RBNY in Chester, be sure to join the team in the race back to Harrison for the evening match-up at Red Bull Arena at 8PM, when NYRB II will host Swope Park Rangers for the USL Championship.