As the regular season began to take shape this year one thing became apparently clear. If you wanted a better shot at beating the Red Bulls, play them the week following a bye in their schedule.
The Red Bulls, who finished 18-10-6 this season, were just 3-2-1 when playing following a break in the schedule. And sometimes it wasn’t pretty, even in victory.
So as they prepare for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Final series against the Crew on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, the game will come two weeks to the day they wrapped up their conference semifinal series victory over D.C. United.
“That’s a little bit of a concern,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “Obviously you want to make sure there’s not a lull in the team. You want to make sure that you keep going at a high level and a high pace. Certainly, coming off bye weeks, we haven’t performed up to our standard. I think the sharpness hasn’t been there, so that’s what we’re using this week as.
“We’re really focusing on making sure that we treat this week, especially these first three days, as really tough training sessions, try and get a base of fitness under you after two days off and get the sharpness with the ball back, and you try to work on things, especially moreso in the attacking third, because that’s where you need to be the sharpest if you’re going to score goals on the road against a team like Columbus. So it’s all about striking that balance between pushing it hard and making sure that guys aren’t picking up little injuries.”
There was nothing the Red Bulls could do about the week off. Major League Soccer decided to take a break between the two playoff rounds to accommodate the remaining teams during the FIFA international dates for World Cup qualifying and the European Championship playoff games. It was the right thing to do, but it remains to be seen how it affects play this weekend.
“Everyone understands the challenge, and we’ve been very open about what the challenges are and where we are,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “Last week it was kind of down-throttling the physical part and actually this week we’re trying to get it back up because they’re plenty rested and they’re fresh and they’re ready to go.
“They’re mentally fresh and physically ready to go so we’re going to have a really good week of training. The focus will be good, the concentration will be good and in all ways we’ll be ready to throw it all out there on Sunday.”
Goalkeeper Luis Robles cringed a bit when asked about the team’s regular-season performances following byes, but he believes this time things will be different.
“We’re confident that the previous experiences have been something that we can learn from,” he said. “Even (Monday), when we were about to do the last session, all the guys were saying ‘Let’s be sharp, let’s really focus,’ because it’s been something that we can collectively get behind, understanding that in the past there have been some instances where we didn’t come out sharp and we want to be able to buck that trend.
“Last week was tough and (Marsch) gave us some time to at least rest, but the training in itself was tough. (Marsch) really wanted to play 11v11 on Friday, but it really didn’t work out because we didn’t have the numbers to get after it. I know that after Friday the guys were really looking forward to the weekend. But with that being said, it’s game week. We know what’s at stake. We know very clearly what we have to accomplish, and I’m confident that the guys not only will be sharp but be focused on the task.”
The Crew also didn’t do well following byes. They finished second to the Red Bulls in the East with a 15-11-8 record, but were just 2-1-2 after a bye week.
With the Red Bulls having last weekend off, and with three players on international duty, Marsch decided to go hard in training a few days, give the players Saturday and Sunday off, then come back with a tough session on Monday to gear up for game week.
“(Monday) was one of those days where maybe we were battling lethargy, but if we can get the rust off, train well (Tuesday) and Wednesday, recuperate on Thursday, then we’re looking at about 48 house till the game and we’re hoping everyone’s in the right frame of mind and physically everyone feels good,” Robles said.
When asked if he did anything differently from the regular season when the team had a bye or a long stretch between games, Marsch admitted he did.
“Little things,” he said. “Just how we use the time, how we start to ramp up the intensity during the week leading into the game, so that’s where we’re at. (Monday) was a pretty intense day for us for this late in the year, but it was good. I thought the training was really good. Guys were sharp, guys were into it.
“More than anything at this time of year our mentality’s good. We’ll get all the details right of the physical parts, we’ll get all the details right of the mentality, we’ll get the preparation right for the scouting, we know what our game plan is and our guys are ready to throw it all out there. They understand.”
Marsch said he was happy for defender Matt Miazga, who earned his first cap for the United States, as well as defenders Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica) and Karl Ouimette (Canada). All three came out of their respective World Cup qualifiers in good health.
“It’s not ideal but this is the situation we’re presented with,” Marsch said about losing players at such a key time in the postseason. “These guys know those games are important when they go there, and when they come back here it’s a really important time of the year for us, too.
“Matt played 25 (minutes), and I thought that was good. Karl and Kemar both played 90, so we’ll see what happens on Tuesday (after the next round of qualifiers).”
Marsch said he was not worried about his defense, despite the loss of Damien Perrinelle with a knee injury and the possibility any one of the three internationals could get hurt and miss time with the club at this important stretch.
Still, what was once the part of the team with the most depth could be severely hampered if one or more of the three defenders pick up knock that will cause him to sit out.
“We’ll see what they’re like when they get back,” Marsch said. “But we’re hopeful they get back unscathed.”