HARRISON, N.J. – It has been nine days since the New York Red Bulls lifted the Supporters’ Shield in front of their home fans.
It feels like much longer.
The Red Bulls will host the Houston Dynamo in the second leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series on Wednesday night (8:00 PM, MSG), and the magnitude of the make-or-break playoff match at Red Bull Arena has overshadowed all the success that New York has achieved this year.
"It seems like a year ago, like long ago," Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. "It's been a long week, and [winning it] means nothing [right now]. It's something that we'll serve some cheese and crackers on at my family Christmas party."
The pressure has unquestionably ramped up for the Red Bulls during the past couple of weeks, especially after Sunday’s 2-2 draw in Houston, and the players admitted as much following a light training session on Tuesday. But New York players also made it known that they are not overly bothered by that result, despite the fact the Dynamo fought back from a two-goal first-half deficit to earn a tie.
Instead, the Red Bulls are choosing to focus on the fact that they will be at home on Wednesday night on level terms against a Dynamo team that has yet to beat them this year.
“The fact of the matter is we played the final 25 [minutes] down a man, conceded in the last seconds and got out of there with a tie,” said Petke. “We’re buzzing, our heads are up. All this talk about, ‘Oh, we let something slip away.’ What did we let slip away? We’re back at home in a one-off game, 0-0 pretty much. These guys are ready.”
Petke added that the key for the Red Bulls to avoid another early exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs on Wednesday night is to maintain a strong defensive shape, especially with defensive anchor Jamison Olave suspended for the match after receiving a red card in the first leg.
That is not to say that the Red Bulls will play defensively at Red Bull Arena. Not by a long shot.
“We’re playing at home, so we’re going to need to have a go,” said Thierry Henry. “That goes without saying. The game that we played over there didn’t change too much on the tie. We have to win at home now, and they have to win at our place. … Both teams are in the same situation. The only thing that has changed is we’re playing at home, so it is a slight advantage. A big one, I guess.”
Another advantage for the Red Bulls is that Wednesday night will mark Houston’s third game in seven days. The challenge for them will be as grueling physically as it will be mentally against a New York team that is not only relatively fresh, but confident about its chances of moving onto the Eastern Conference Final.
“We’ve got a game plan -- a few things changed up with the squad -- but overall it’s in our own hands like it has been the whole season,” said Tim Cahill. “You don’t turn [into] a bad team overnight from a few mistakes, and the thing is: We’re ready to accept the challenge and push on and try to do something tomorrow night.”