Red Bulls Head North of the Border for Clash vs. Toronto FC (Saturday, 4 PM, MSG)

There may still be more than a dozen games left on the New York Red Bulls’ regular season schedule, but already the playoff mentality is starting to take form.

Three big points against the Montreal Impact last week placed the Red Bulls in a 31-point tie with the Canadian side for second place in the East, but in the bigger picture it’s still a tight race that has every match against a conference opponent carrying some extra significance. Saturday’s meeting against Toronto FC is no exception, as the Red Bulls visit BMO Field for the final time this season.

“To me the playoff mentality needs to come far earlier this year than the playoffs actually start because of that reason right there,” Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke said. “You can find yourself in first place one week and within two weeks you can be out of the playoff picture. Every game counts, every game’s important.”

Thus far in 2013, the Red Bulls have posted an 8-4-3 record against conference opponents. Without a doubt the biggest boost in that department came during the club’s eight-game unbeaten streak from Apr. 20 through May 26 that included a 4-0-2 record against teams in the East.

Most recently, the performance against the Impact required the team to dig deep, put their best foot forward, and get the result. Having done that, Red Bulls defender Kosuke Kimura feels the team’s reaction shows its ability to face and overcome challenges head on.

 “Against Montreal, they were at the top of the table at that time, and we knew we needed to win,” Kimura said. “Team like that, been playing well, and we won 4-0. That tells you something. It’s not easy, definitely, but I think we took that challenge and reacted better.”

Although riding high after taking the regular season series against Montreal, the old MLS adage that any team can win on any night still rests in the back of every player’s mind.

“It’s MLS. You need to win,” Kimura said. “If you drop one or two on the road, you’re going to be close to the bottom again. That’s MLS. Who knows who’s going to win? And that’s the time, like right now is the most critical time. I know it’s hot, it’s tough out there, but that’s the time. You have to get mentally strong as a team, get organized, and just play.”

In this season’s previous match against Toronto FC, an Apr. 27 meeting at BMO Field, the Red Bulls snapped a tie in the 89th minute to secure a 2-1 win after Tim Cahill rounded out his brace off a trademark header. The tally was his second of the season, and the win helped rev up the aforementioned unbeaten run.

At 2-10-7, Toronto finds itself well outside of the playoff picture at 9th place in the East. The club’s last win came against fellow basement dwellers D.C. United on June 15, a 2-1 victory. Winless at home since Mar. 9, TFC has gone 0-3-2 over its last five.

Following the Red Bulls’ training session Thursday afternoon, goalkeeper Luis Robles reaffirmed the need for a win against a conference opponent, no matter the club’s record.

“We’ve played 20 games so far,” Robles said. “We’ve got, not quite the home stretch yet, but because of how tight it is in the Eastern Conference, each one of these conference opponents are big. They’re really important games. It doesn’t matter where they are in the standings, we need to do the best that we can to take points from conference opponents.”

Get a brief rundown of match storylines in this week’s What to Watch For, when the Red Bulls kick off against Toronto Saturday at 4:00 PM on MSG.

Following this weekend’s action, the Red Bulls return home to Red Bull Arena on July 27 for a 7:00 PM match against Real Salt Lake. Get your tickets at Red Bulls Ticket Central, or call 877.RB.SOCCER.