It's only been a week and a half, but with the Supporters' Shield mission accomplished, the Red Bulls are eyeing what they have described as the biggest prize: MLS Cup. To get there, New York must beat Houston - in regulation, extra time, or penalty kicks, if necessary - in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena. The game will be televised live on MSG and Univision Deportes, with MSG’s pre-game show starting at 7:30 PM. Let’s look ahead to the storylines.
Get settled at the back - and quick
Lineups change all the time in the regular season, but usually by the playoffs, teams have a set group of starters who are together in the same positions every game, especially on defense. So replacing the suspended Jamison Olave - often cited as the league's best combination of speed and strength - for a playoff game is no small thing. Markus Holgersson and Ibrahim Sekagya have played together before, however, and - crucially - Holgersson has been playing regularly lately, just at a different position.
Houston can be very dangerous through the runs of its forwards, Will Bruin (8 goals) and Giles Barnes (9 goals), as seen at the end of the first half on Sunday when Barnes and Boniek Garcia combined to set up a Bruin chance. Sekagya and Holgersson will need to be on the same page right from the kick-off to avoid giving either forward a chance on goal.
Who will have more of the ball? And what will they do with or without it?
New York played Sunday's game to take advantage of its deadly counter-attack, soaking up Houston pressure and creating dangerous chances when the Dynamo sent numbers forward. But with a bigger field and an away game, don't expect Houston to be as aggressive in the early going. New York is going to have plenty of possession in the attacking half of the field, but Houston has excelled in organizing its defense on the road in the last two postseasons, going 3-1-1 on the road in the last two Eastern Conference playoffs.
To break the Dynamo down, the Red Bulls are going to need moments of unpredictable creativity not only from the obvious sources, but less-touted ones like Péguy Luyindula, Dax McCarty, and Jonny Steele. Getting the first goal would help, because it would allow New York to defend and counter a little bit more, but as we saw on Sunday, scoring first is no guarantee.
Right where we want 'em
Lately, whoever Mike Petke has started at right midfield has worked out. Against Chicago, Lloyd Sam pulled off a timely cutback and left-footed finish for one of five goals in the New York win. On Sunday in Houston, Eric Alexander got the starting nod and found the net on a counter-attack himself.
Alexander has started all four games against the Dynamo this year and has produced two goals and an assist, so Petke clearly likes the matchup of Alexander against Brad Davis and Corey Ashe on Houston's left. But Sam also scored against Houston in September, and both players can play a big role in limiting the effectiveness of Davis, Houston's most reliable provider of service. Denying him crossing opportunities could go a long way toward keeping the Dynamo off the scoreboard and sending the Red Bulls to the conference final.
Cometh the hour, cometh the men ...
Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry get many of the Red Bulls-related headlines, and while there are so many other people that play key roles for New York, on and off the field, there is no denying this team belongs to that duo. The second leg of an MLS playoff series is a taut, nerve-wracking environment, as Red Bulls fans know only too well. But with those two in rare form -- Cahill and Henry have been at the heart of almost every New York scoring play in the last two games -- this is the year for New York to wear the favorite's mantle and wear it well. The Red Bulls will rely on these two to make the difference yet again on Wednesday night.