The Red Bulls are back in the postseason for the fourth straight year and 10th time in the last 11 seasons. Their first opponent, however, remains undecided: The Red Bulls will face the winner of Thursday night's Knockout Round game between the Houston Dynamo and Montreal Impact.
The Eastern Conference semifinals will once again be a home-and-home series, with the team scoring the most total goals over the two games advancing to the conference final. The first leg will be played in either Houston or Montreal on Sunday, November 3, with the second leg back at Red Bull Arena on either November 6 or 7. If the teams are tied after 180 minutes, the series will be settled by 30 minutes of overtime and, if necessary, a shootout. Away goals are NOT a tiebreaker used in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
While the Red Bulls must wait to find out their opponent, there is plenty to consider as the playoffs get underway. Here are some of the storylines:
Regular-season champions, but a bigger goal awaits.
Both before and after the emotional Supporters' Shield-clinching win over the Chicago Fire on Sunday, Red Bulls players and coaches were unequivocal that while the Supporters' Shield was one of the team's major goals, its biggest focus is the MLS Cup championship. Having checked one box for 2013 by securing that hardware, the Red Bulls have a normal, one-week recovery period before returning to the field and pursuing the league's top prize.
“This is not going to carry on for three, four, five days," head coach Mike Petke said on Sunday night. "These players are a part of history now in this club, and history is a good thing to look back on after playoffs are over and you’re sitting back having a glass of wine in the offseason. But after tonight, it’s back to the drawing board.”
Which matchup favors New York more, facing Houston or Montreal?
While the Red Bulls will be deserved favorites in either case, and coaches and players will never offer any preference in public, it is fun to debate which matchup is a better one for the Red Bulls.
On paper, it's simple. New York is 9-3-8 against Houston all-time, including a playoff series win in 2008, and swept this year's season series 3-0, including a pair of three-goals wins in Houston's vaunted BBVA Compass Stadium, where the Dynamo went a calendar year without losing. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls are 1-2 playing on the road in Montreal, which could make for a tricky first leg.
A closer look, however, reveals that Montreal struggled to a 1-6-1 record in its last eight games, sneaking into the playoffs on the goals-scored tiebreaker after the Red Bulls beat the Chicago Fire on Sunday. The Impact have often started six players who are at least 30 years old, including 37-year-olds Marco Di Vaio (who, with 20 goals, remains dangerous) and Alessandro Nesta (who is out with a lower-body injury). An older, more injured squad would be playing three games in seven or eight days, and that combination of bad recent form and tired legs could give the Red Bulls an extra advantage.
Houston, on the other hand, is 4-2-2 in its last eight games (with both losses coming against the Red Bulls), has made an inspired run to the Eastern Conference championship in each of the last two years, and is a dominant 8-1 all-time in home playoff games. Of course, that one loss was one of the Red Bulls' greatest triumphs - the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Whether it's Houston or Montreal, the Red Bulls are just happy to be watching rather than playing on Thursday night, and they will be lying in wait, ready and well-rested for whichever team comes their way.
"I do have, deep in my mind probably, a bit of a favorite -- I won't disclose who that is," Petke told the media on a Tuesday conference call. "I'm actually hoping for overtime and a shootout so one of the teams is tired."
Can the Red Bulls make the most of their home field advantage?
The Red Bulls finished the season tied for third in MLS in home record at 11-2-4, trailing only Portland and San Jose (11-1-5), and away record at 6-7-4, trailing only Kansas City (8-5-4) and New England (6-6-5). In home record, Montreal (8th) and Houston (an uncharacteristic 12th) were in the middle of the pack, so getting a draw or even a narrow loss in the first leg would put the Red Bulls in prime position for the second leg.
MLS postseason history is littered, however, with tales of home second legs gone awry, including New York's own failures in 2010 and 2012 and its upset win at Houston in 2008. So a gaudy home record is no guarantee for postseason success.
The Red Bulls are unbeaten in their last nine home games and lead the league in home scoring at an even two goals per home game. If another sellout crowd can pack Red Bull Arena and match the raucous atmosphere of Sunday night, New York stands a good chance of continuing its home scoring success and moving on to the conference final.