Fire-Red Bulls tilt heavy with anticipation

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- One year ago, the New York Red Bulls were the laughingstock of MLS, and Sunday's matchup would have been a dud on the Chicago Fire's calendar. But things have changed dramatically since then.

A combined five designated players could take the pitch and Toyota Park possibly will have a sellout crowd on hand when the Fire host New York in a match jam-packed with anticipation (8 p.m. CT kickoff, ESPN2).

The Red Bulls have taken full advantage of the league's designated player rule using the three-player maximum: Juan Pablo Angel, Mexican National Team captain Rafael Marquez and Frenchman Thierry Henry. The Fire recently brought in two designated players in the past several weeks in Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg.

"It won't be easy because they strengthened the team with new players like Henry and Rafa Marquez," Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "But if we want to qualify, we need to show that we can win these kinds of matches."

The familiarity among the designated players adds to the glamour of this match. Castillo and Marquez have been Mexican national squad teammates, and Ljungberg and Henry played together at Arsenal.

"He's a great friend of mine -- we've been texting a lot of times during this week and the last couple of weeks," Ljungberg said of Henry. "It's going to be fun to play against ... I'm not saying fun to play against, but fun to meet each other again. It'll be weird to play against each other."

Just last year, the Red Bulls posted a dismal 5-19-6 record. Now, New York finds itself in second place in the Eastern Conference with an 8-6-3 record, seven points ahead of fourth-place Chicago.

The Fire (5-5-5) have aggressively pieced together additions and changes to their roster. Aside from their two designated player signings, they are bringing back defender Gonzalo Segares, and they elected to go with rookie goalkeeper Sean Johnson manning the net against the Los Angeles Galaxy and in the final two matches in SuperLiga.

It should be interesting to see how De los Cobos plays to the abilities of Castillo and Ljungberg.

"These guys have similar qualities, but the important thing is to try to play together," De los Cobos said. "I am thinking about what the best shape of the lineup is for the team. I think it's necessary for these two guys to know each other and play together, because they have very strong qualities in the attack."

"I think what they want is for me to be more central like I've been in Seattle," Ljungberg said. "I was like that sometimes in England when we needed to maybe control the game a bit more. So I think that's what they want me to do, to try to play the ball and get a good game going."

The Fire are 5-0-1 against the Red Bulls at Toyota Park, but this is not the Red Bulls of a year ago. Chicago and New York have taken advantage of this transfer window and strengthened themselves for an important second half of the season.

Sunday should be a treat to see the heightened talent levels of both squads.