Even with a full week to prepare, this was a game former Red Bulls coach Mike Petke used to hate. Playing the Revolution on a very bad artificial surface in Gillette Stadium meant that Thierry Henry, the team’s best offensive player, and Jamison Olave, their best defensive player, would sit out to prevent leg injuries.
With both players gone this year Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch won’t have to deal with that issue, but he is expected to make a number of lineup changes Saturday night in New England because it will be the club’s third game in seven days.
“We’ll make some changes, we’ll get some fresh legs on the field,” Marsch said. “We’re still trying to evaluate who that’s going to be and where guys are at that have played some major minutes. We’ll put a team on the field that will be ready to compete.”
Five months ago the Revolution ended the Red Bulls’ 2014 season with a 4-3 aggregate victory following a 2-2 tie in the second leg of their Eastern Conference final. Since then, the Red Bulls have revamped their front office, coaching staff and much of the roster. Only three players – goalkeeper Luis Robles and midfielders Dax McCarty and Lloyd Sam – were on the field that day. Two others – forward Bradley Wright-Phillips and defender Roy Miller – were suspended for the match.
The loss of Wright-Phillips was particularly devastating, especially in the final 20 minutes when one more goal would have sent the Red Bulls through on away goals. After scoring a franchise-record 27 goals in the regular season four more in the playoffs, he picked up a foolish yellow card in the first leg for encroachment. He interfered with goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, who was attempting to roll the ball to a teammate after he made a save.
Miller played the full 90 minutes in Wednesday night’s 1-1 tie against the Colorado Rapids at Red Bull Arena – his first action since the first game of the season due to injury – and is expected to be in the starting lineup against the Revs.
“It was a battle. It was certainly a very tough series,” McCarty recalled about last year’s playoff loss. “It was a series that both teams were very sharp and very tuned in. They got the best of us and that was a bitter pill to swallow. I thought we played very well in the second leg. I thought we were a couple of minutes, a couple of bounces away from going to MLS Cup.
“This year has been a year of a new beginning and we don’t really focus on the past too much. Obviously the guys that have been here who tasted that bitter pill, we want to win, but mainly we just want to keep progressing as the season goes on.”
Added Robles: “That was a tough, tough night for us. We were so close to the final and we really believed we were going to be there, but it just didn’t work out. It’s a different squad. We’ve got a lot of players that are unfamiliar to the rivalry, but there are some players that are still there. It’s always special when we go into New England and play against a team that over the years has really had our number.
“I feel like the last couple of years we gotten some good results (there). I don’t know how much emotion will carry over from the playoffs, but we’ll face them again late in the season and things will be a little different.”
Marsch knows it will be an emotional game for a select few, but he prefers to look at this season, where the Revs (4-2-2, 14 points) and the Red Bulls (3-0-4, 13 points) are two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, separated by second-place D.C. United (4-1-2, 14 points).
“That was a bitter memory for a lot of guys and I hope that they take that memory and use it as motivation in the right way, but it’s also obviously more about this group this year than last year and about it being two good teams,” Marsch said. “New England has already established itself as a good team and this year we have, too. The East will come down to, in some way, shape or form, I think that these two teams will be involved at the end of the year, so it’s a chance for us to set the tone.”
Marsch said he isn’t looking at this as a statement game. He prefers a different term.
“Statement game is always a dangerous term to use because it’s about trying to prove something to somebody else,” he said. “It’s a measuring stick. That’s how I look at this, it’s a measuring stick against a good team that is good at home, and if we consider ourselves a good team we’ve got to go there and put the game on our terms and compete and get a result.”
The Revolution this year added former Red Bull Juan Agudelo to an attack that already included Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, Lee Nguyen and Jermaine Jones. Of their 10 goals, no one has more than two. Like the Red Bulls, it’s a balanced attack.
“It makes them dangerous,” McCarty said. “Whenever you plan for a big-time goal scorer you know where your focus is going to be, but now we have to focus on a couple of different options. They’re a dangerous team going forward.”
Wright-Phillips feels the team just needs to get its edge back following a pair of 1-1 ties at home.
“We just need to get back to basics, what we were known for at the start of the season,” he said. “If we do that we’ll be alright. There’s obviously going to be some bitterness there, but it’s always a tough game when we play New England. Playing there is very tough. (The field) is hard. It difficult to come to terms with.
“We just have to go out and win the game. Obviously if we can get a point out of New England it’s a good point, but all the games are tough games, especially with the (teams) that are close to us.”
Robles is preparing for another tough game. He also has to prepare for a field surface that does funny things with the ball.
“We (practiced) on the turf (Friday) just because the ball’s going to spin a little faster,” he said. “Sometimes there’s going to be some funny hops. I’m not sure if they replaced the turf after the football season so it’s going to be matted down a little bit, but Astroturf is part of this league. It’s not something you can excuse away anymore.
"There’s a few teams that play on the Field Turf and from our perspective it is going to be different, but there’s no excuses. We know what’s in front of us and we’ve prepared. We’re optimistic going into Gillette Stadium.”
Perhaps McCarty summed it up best.
“We want to end this long, hard week with a win.”