Open playoffs on the road? No problem for confident Red Bulls

Team's play since Aug. 25 has New York confident for first leg

With the third-best road record in MLS, the Supporters' Shield champion Red Bulls should not be fazed by opening the 2013 postseason on the road on Sunday afternoon, facing the winner of Thursday night’s Knockout Round game between the Houston Dynamo and Montreal Impact.

They have reason to be confident; after all, some of the Red Bulls’ most important results this season have come on the road:

  • A revenge win over the team responsible for last season’s playoff exit, D.C. United.
    (WATCH HIGHLIGHTS)
  • A 3-2 win at the club’s closest rival for the conference title, Kansas City.
    (WATCH HIGHLIGHTS)
  • Not one, but two wins – by three goals, no less – over two-time defending conference champion and potential playoff opponent Houston.
    (WATCH HIGHLIGHTS - Sept. 8, Oct. 20)
  • Ties in two of the league’s most intimidating venues, Portland and Seattle.
    (WATCH HIGHLIGHTS - March 3, Sept. 29)

But ironically, one of the reasons for New York’s confidence stems from a recent low point on the road: the Red Bulls’ 3-2 loss at Chivas USA on Aug. 25. A frustrating result against the last-place team in the Western Conference, but it may have been just what the doctor ordered.

“That’s probably the kick that we needed, to lose to Chivas,” Australian midfielder Tim Cahill said last week. “If you want to win something, you have to back yourself and really strive to demand a high level from each other. That’s probably the kick that we needed, because it was a bit of a wake-up call, because then the questions were asked that we were flopping again and we were choking.”

The Red Bulls answered those questions with those resounding wins in Houston and a 1-1 tie in Seattle, the latter coming on a late Cahill goal. Playing on the road in the postseason, especially in the two-leg format of the conference semifinal series, brings a slightly different set of challenges.

While the Knockout Round, now in its third season, gives an advantage to the top seed in each conference in terms of rest, those top seeds still start each series on the road. In recent years, dominating first-leg wins have carried both Real Salt Lake (3-0 over Seattle in 2011) and Houston (2-0 over Kansas City in 2012) to conference semifinal wins as the lower seed.

A veteran of the league and its evolving playoff formats, New York head coach Mike Petke is well aware of the need to avoid such a result in Sunday’s first leg, but he says the Red Bulls will approach the road contest just as they have each of the last three.

“On the road, we’ve become comfortable and confident in the way we’ve played,” Petke said of his team’s recent 2-0-1 mark in away games. “We’re just going to continue to do what we’ve set out to do: follow the game plan on the road and play a certain style.”

Difficult decisions could arrive for Petke in the second half if the home team – whichever it turns out to be – takes the lead, but a quick look at New York’s own playoff history shows that coming away with a win, tie, or potentially one-goal loss – “a result” in soccer parlance – in the first leg does not guarantee much.

In each of the last three years, New York has opened on the road in a postseason series, and even when they knocked off San Jose in 2010, the Red Bulls failed to advance when hosting the second leg. In fact, New York’s only postseason series win in the current format came when the opponent got a first-leg “result” on the road. That was the 2008 Western Conference semifinal against Houston, when the Red Bulls gave up a late lead at home in the first leg but won 3-0 in Houston in the second leg in one of the biggest upsets in MLS history. So Petke does not intend to play it safe.

“I think it comes in the moment, to see who we’re playing and how confident we feel in the series and what we can do at home. We don’t want to go down multiple goals on the road and have a mountain to climb,” Petke said. “To think about the second leg during the first one, even though many say you have to, it’s 90 minutes at a time for us.”