Last week, shortly before kicking off the first leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against Columbus Crew, the New York Red Bulls announced they’d be without Aurelien Collin for - most likely - the duration of their 2018 MLS playoffs.
Collin is one of six players on RBNY’s injury list: Vincent Bezecourt, Kyle Duncan, Ben Mines, Tommy Redding, and Florian Valot are also banged up and expected to play no part in whatever remains of RBNY’s season.
But for a team with a relatively long injury list (by contrast, Columbus’ only significant reported injury is to former RBNY hero Mike Grella), the Red Bulls don’t really have much of a problem with injuries. The team has long adapted to the loss of regular first-teamers like Bezecourt and Valot; the likes of Duncan, Mines, Redding, and Collin were either fringe first-team players this season at best, or never really got the chance to make themselves essential to their club’s cause this year before injury cut short their seasons.
Until or unless we get more late-breaking of injury within the squad, the assumption is RBNY head coach Chris Armas has as full a roster to choose from as he might have hoped for at this stage of the season. His favorites and preferred alternates are fit and available. The injury list takes the edge off squad depth somewhat, but that headache has more or less been ever-present for Armas since he took over the head coaching position in mid-season - and he coped with it by guiding the team to the highest regular-season points total in MLS history and its third Supporters’ Shield since 2013.
No excuses then: Armas has pretty much the same pool of players available that he’s been relying on since he became RBNY head coach. They know their roles and their coach has proven he can get the best out of them.
The Red Bulls lost the first leg of this series, 1-0, which means they have to win this game - and win it by two clear goals. The only result that can render the series a tie and send it to extra time or penalties is a 1-0 for RBNY; any other scoreline will see either the Red Bulls or Columbus clinch this Eastern Conference Semifinal.
Expect RBNY to chase a two-goal win from the opening whistle. Here’s the lineup Once A Metro expects Armas to ask to put Columbus on its heels from the get-go:
In the first leg, Armas opted to start Daniel Royer over in-form Derrick Etienne. It was perhaps the lineup decision that stands up least well to hindsight: Royer had sat out most of October with injury, and he did not appear to have the extra step or sharpness that comes to a player in top form. But Royer should be a week closer to better form now, and he won’t find what he was missing last week by sitting on the bench. He’s the team’s second-most reliable goal scorer when he’s at his best and RBNY needs goals in this game.
Also, the Red Bulls aren’t a goal down in the series because Royer had a sub-par game last week. They’re a goal down because no one on RBNY’s side of the ball stepped up with the sort of exceptional performance produced by the Crew’s Zack Steffen and Federico Higuain. Armas’ first-choice XI shouldn’t need much more motivation to be at their best than they will have for this game: they are the preferred starters for the best team MLS has ever seen, and they have 90 minutes at home to keep their season alive.