Is it me, or does every game over the last few weeks seem to be a clash of top teams in some sort of fashion? Both the Western and Eastern Conferences in MLS see the top two teams facing off. Here in the east, the New York Red Bulls (10-7-5. 3-5-3 away) head to Sporting Park to take on east leading Sporting KC (10-6-6) who lead the Red Bulls by a single point. Sporting KC is first in the east (second overall in MLS) and NY is second in the east (third overall in MLS).
Over the last few seasons, SKC seem to have had the Red Bulls number. The teams have met six times since the start of the 2011 season and NY are 1-3-2 on those matches. Since the Wizards rebrand, the Red Bulls have won only one match, coming back in April of 2011 off a Luke Rodgers goal, with an assist to Dwayne De Rosario. That is also the last time someone on the Red Bulls put the ball past Jimmy Nielsen and into KC’s net. All three of the Red Bulls losses to SKC have been shutouts, including the 1-0 loss earlier this year at Red Bull Arena. The only other goal that KC has allowed in playing NY was an own goal by Kei Kamara off a Sebastian LeToux free kick.
Both the Red Bulls and Sporting KC will be without key cogs in their midfield. NY’s Tim Cahill is out for a few weeks with a torn pcl, suffered in the thrilling 4-3 win over RSL last weekend. This means NY will lose its most versatile player on set pieces. Not only is Cahill always a threat against goal bit his ability to seek where a set piece is being hit and head the ball out of danger is uncanny. It is a skill that while Cahill was not scoring goals for NY, was still helping them win games. SKC will be without Graham Zusi due to a right quad knock. Zusi felt tightness in his quad during the MLS All-Star game against AS Roma on Wednesday. Zusi was subbed almost immediately in precaution. SKC’s other two players in the All-Star game, Matt Besler and Aurellien Collin, went 45and the full 90 minutes respectively. NY’s Thierry Henry played 57 minutes against AS Roma and stayed in KC ahead of todays clash. Sporting could also be without another key player, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. Nielsen is in another bout with meningitis after staying overnight in the hospital on Sunday.
Sporting KC comes off a late 1-0 loss in Montreal in which they did not have Besler or Collin in the center of their defense. Collin returns from his yellow card accumulation suspension and Besler is back from the Gold Cup, reuniting arguably one of the best defenses in MLS. Filling the cleats of Graham Zusi will not be easy for Peter Vermes. Not only does Zusi have some of the best service off set pieces but Zusi can play the high pressure game Vermes likes and still track back on defense for 90 minutes winning balls in his defensive end. Benny Feilhaber (my pick for Comeback Player of the Year) seems set to start in place of Zusi.
The Red Bulls come off a 4-3 home win over RSL at Red Bull Arena. A late penalty and magic from the likes of Brandon Barklage and Dax McCarty that salvaged all three points for the Red Bulls after the defense broke down and gave up two goals in two minutes. NY will be without Cahill so its only natural Eric Alexander slots back into his more comfortable role of central midfield. The real question is who replaces him on the right wing. Lloyd Sam seems to be the obvious choice but Sam has been in Petke’s doghouse most of the season. Newly acquired Englishmen Bradley Wright-Phillips could see time on the wing but he had to return to London to acquire his ITC. Maybe the likes of Marius Obekop has earned a shot to start for Petke and the Red Bulls. Petke can also throw the curveball of keeping Alexander on the flank to deal with Chance Meyers getting forward from his fullback position and start rookie Michael Bustamante, who is a natural attacking midfielder. The last scenario is highly unlikely, as NY likes to go with as many proven veterans as possible.
This match with come down to how easily each forward line can break down the defensive wall it will face. Sporting KC’s trio of Saad, Bieler, and Kamara is a dangerous one that is technically gifted, powerful, and has speed. The Red Bull defenders will have to be 100% on their game tonight to avoid letting the forwards slip by them. As for Henry and Espindola up top, it will be more than a tough test tonight. I really don’t see how Henry and Espindola will pose much of a threat against the backline of SKC. Without Tim Cahill, SKC will not have to worry about the dangerous late run out of the midfield. Set pieces also come a factor into this match. In April it was a Zusi corner that Collin buried past Robles for the game winner in the first half. After Collin beat Olave, Cahill started marking Collin. The matches that Cahill and Collin have squared off against each other, has become the best matchup in all of MLS. It’s just an entertaining battle that we will miss out on.
While Dempsey watch has the rest of MLS in a flutter, one of the most important matchups in all of MLS will be taking place. The Red Bull haven’t gotten a result in KC since before the rebrand and every season for the past few years, this has been a match that shows if NY can truly be a shield or MLS Cup contender. A win on the road tonight will not only do the Red Bulls justice in the standings but show they can go on the road and take it to a team that is tough to break down anywhere you have the ball on the field. Kickoff is at 6:30 est. on the NBC Sports Network and precedes NBC Sports MLS Breakaway.