Nine points from three games have put the New York Red Bulls in a strong position: second in the Eastern Conference, and just two points off top spot in the Supporters’ Shield race. More importantly, perhaps, they have momentum.
But the present week brings with a fresh challenge: two road games, the first of which is Wednesday, May 3 - just four days after RBNY played Chicago Fire to claim its latest three-point haul. And that match against Sporting Kansas City will come Philadelphia Union on Saturday, May 6. There is little time for rest and recovery this week, and a lot of travel. The Red Bulls will, of course, take it one game at a time, but they also know a tight schedule brings predictable challenges.
“We will use some rotation and we like our roster - we think we’re deep. I think it’s a good opportunity to learn more about ourselves this week and put guys to the test. We’ll try to figure find out which guys are the ones that we think are ready to recover and repeat and go again. There’ll be a balance throughout these next two games of trying to get that right,” said RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch after the team’s training session on Monday, May 1.
Sporting Kansas City is in good form too, having lost just one game so far this season (on the road to FC Dallas) and conceded only three goals. For Marsch, KC’s early-season is not as much a surprise as it is a continuation of the form the team showed in 2016:
They had a good team last year. They were a little bit like Columbus that they were a little bit unlucky in certain results and had to deal with some injuries and what-not - but everyone still knows that’s a good team. They outplayed Seattle in the playoffs and were unlucky not to move on in that series, and then Seattle winds up winning it all.
KC head coach Peter Vermes is approaching a decade in charge of the Kansas City club. This is the eighth season the team has kicked off with Vermes directing it from the sidelines, and it has got accustomed to silverware in that time. The former MetroStars man has led KC to two US Open Cups and one MLS Cup since 2012, and the early signs are that he has another trophy-contending squad in 2017.
But even in lean years by the team’s standards under Vermes, KC is a tough opponent.
“Playing in Kansas City is never easy. We expect a great crowd. It’s a fun game. They play a fast style and so I think it’ll be important for us to be alert and ready for the challenge on the day physically,” said Marsch.
The 2017 season to date has brought the usual variety of tests for RBNY: a string of home-opening games at the start of the year (the Red Bulls were the opposition for Atlanta and Seattle in their home-openers, games that sandwiched the first MLS game of 2017 at Red Bull Arena); the challenge of facing a buoyant Orlando in its new stadium; an early-season taste of the old rivalry with D.C. United; the mixed emotions Dax McCarty brought with him to RBA when Chicago Fire came to visit.
Against KC, the primary test will be in facing the team’s signature brand of soccer under Vermes: quick, physical, and successful. Marsch’s challenge is to keep his team focused less on the schedule and more on the game it is in on the day:
What’s going to be most important is that there’s clarity on the field, that each guy that steps up is ready to go. Nothing beats good performances. Our tactics, we’ll put good game plans together and be ready - but if we get 11 good performances then our chances of winning will be exponentially higher.
The Red Bulls are expecting KC to be a handful, but Marsch, characteristically, sees an opportunity to stress-test the good habits established during his team’s recent winning run:
We have to be organized, we have to press together, we have to make sure that we’re sharp in terms of our defensive connections and movement, and then take advantage of chances. Try to find ways to press, to put the game on our terms, and when we create chances, to be aggressive to go to goal - and find ways to put things on target and make [Tim] Melia make saves. So, I think it’s a great moment in the season for us to be challenged in a big way and I think Kansas City will do exactly that.
Ultimately, the match will be a good opportunity for RBNY to see where it stands against one of the most consistent teams, year-to-year, in MLS in recent seasons:
More than anything, Peter’s teams always compete, they always are physical, they’re always organized and that always gives them a chance and makes them very difficult to play against - so that’s, I think, what we’ll see.
On the road on short rest against an in-form opponent: this will be a difficult game for RBNY. But it is the team’s ambition to be among the best in MLS, and KC is one of those best at this point in 2017. The Red Bulls have been fragile on the road so far this season, and will not be favorites against Sporting: if they can come away from Kansas City with something more than a few hard lessons learned, they will have done very well indeed.