'Lots of magic' as Ronaldo rocks Bronx

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
12:15
AM ET


Cristiano Ronaldo brought the world's "beautiful game" to a sellout crowd in the Bronx on Wednesday.

And he didn't disappoint.

Playing a friendly in front of 49,474 at Yankee Stadium, Ronaldo scored two goals and teammate Kaka added three assists in Real Madrid's 5-1 rout of AC Milan.

The game was part of the Herbalife World Football Challenge and was the second match played in the new Yankee Stadium. Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain played to a 1-all tie at the stadium in late July.

Stan Honda/Getty ImagesCristiano Ronaldo soared above the competition Wednesday.
The sellout crowd Wednesday gave the stadium a playoff-like atmosphere. And Ronaldo & Co. seemed to feed off it.

Said Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho: "There was lots of magic here, and I think we gave the stadium what it deserved.

"If I have this kind of crowd, this enthusiastic crowd in the Bernabeu [Real Madrid's home stadium], I don’t lose a match in the Bernabeu," the coach added. "Because these people were fantastic."

As was Ronaldo.

The 2008 FIFA Player of the Year's first tally came in the 49th minute. He collected a pass from Lass Diarra and knocked it past AC Milan keeper Christian Abbiati to give Madrid a 2-1 lead.

His second goal came in the 66th minute, when he received a beautiful pass from Kaka and scored on an uncontested shot.

After the tally, Ronaldo stood near the right-field stands, head held high, soaking in the applause from an adoring crowd. It was the kind of applause normally reserved for a Derek Jeter late-inning hit or a CC Sabathia strikeout.

"The fans, they give [Yankee Stadium] a special color," Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain said.

The stadium's field underwent an extensive overhaul for Wednesday's game. The Yankees' grounds crew started converting the diamond to a soccer pitch immediately after the Yanks' win over Toronto on Sunday.

And the pitch seemed to fit well inside the House That George Steinbrenner Built.

The end lines stretched from short right field to the left-center field wall on one side and from the right-field corner to about 20 feet in front of the Yankees' dugout on the other.

"A great field," is how one Real Madrid player described it.

And, on Wednesday, it belonged to Ronaldo, the main event in a game filled with stars.

Which is why Mourinho decided to keep his star player on the field for nearly 80 minutes.

"Historical stadium. Historical opponent. Full stadium. Great support," the coach said. "I think Cristiano is part of the show, part of what people want to see."

RONALDO WANTS KAKA TO STAY: Recent reports have stated that Real Madrid's Kaka is close to finding a new team.

The 30-year-old midfielder is largely a backup at Madrid and, according to reports, wants to return to Italy.

He did not address reporters after Wednesday's match.

But Ronaldo offered his opinion on Kaka's situation.

"I personally would like for Kaka to remain with the team. He is one of the top players in the world, and the top players need to be in Madrid," Ronaldo told Spanish-speaking reporters on Wednesday. "But that is Kaka's decision and we have to respect whether he chooses to stay or to go. ... But I believe he will stay."

Photos: Real Madrid vs. AC Milan in Bronx

August, 8, 2012
8/08/12
11:18
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Here are a few photos from Real Madrid's 5-1 win over AC Milan at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night:

Joe Camporeale/US PresswireFans pack Yankee Stadium for the big match.


Angel Martinez/Getty ImagesReal Madrid is ready for its closeup.


Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesSergio Ramos (right) of Real Madrid celebrates his goal.


Stan Honda/AFP/GettyImagesSoccer takes over the Jumbotron in the Bronx.


Joe Camporeale/US PresswireThe classic Yankee Stadium facade frames the pitch.


Joe Camporeale/US PresswireEven The Boss gets in on the action.


Joe Camporeale/US PresswireInjured closer Mariano Rivera serves as the Bombers' player representative.

Video: Taking on the best

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
11:28
PM ET


Thierry Henry and Hans Backe discuss New York's upcoming matchup with powerhouse Real Salt Lake.

RBNY Recap: Galaxy's free kicks finish off Red Bulls' run in MLS Playoffs

November, 4, 2011
11/04/11
12:58
PM ET

On a night where they committed twice as many fouls as their opponent, an errant kick effectively set the Red Bulls free from any further MLS postseason obligations. Ain't that a kick in the head?

Actually, yes. Landon Donovan still needed to convert the awarded penalty kick moments later to cement the Los Angeles Galaxy's 2-1 win over the Red Bulls on Thursday night and 3-1 win on aggregate in the MLS Western Conference semifinals, but it was a sloppy Roy Miller clearance kick to David Beckham's groggy noggin in the penalty area that made possible the last of a litany of free kicks which haunted New York all season.

It's a frustrating way to end a season, not only because the effective series winner was scored earlier in the match on another free kick -- that one courtesy of a Beckham free kick culminating in a header by newly-minted Red Bulls killer Mike Magee -- but moreso because the majority of goals typically scored in soccer come in the run of play. Free kicks are passing moments in soccer, with formations designed by coaches who understand fully that any greater strategy to defend against them will dissipate in seconds once the run of play is restored from the stoppage.

Of the 96 goals scored or allowed by the Red Bulls during the 2011 MLS regular season, 29 of them -- or approximately 30% -- resulted due to or immediately following a dead ball. New York finished 10 of those free kicks, meaning they allowed twice as many penalty-area headers and goalmouth tap-ins as they scored. Considering the Red Bulls committed two more fouls than they suffered per 90 minutes in 2011, that's enough of an inefficiency for a precision kicker like Beckham to exploit with ease.

It was also enough to make heroes of Colorado Rapids midfielder Jeff Larentowicz last May and Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio in August and September. Free kicks let Dynamo striker Cam Weaver net an equalizer in the early goings of the season and let Seattle Sounders sub Roger Levesque finish off New York last summer.

Donovan and Beckham didn't just finish off the Red Bulls with their free kick follies. They finished off the Red Bulls again, joining a long list of opponents this season who just seemed to convert timely chances from dead balls while painfully reminding Luke Rodgers and his Red Bulls side that, despite finding their confidence and form late in the season, they remain the same ol' Red Bulls that can't defend against the set piece.

"We’re starting to get all over them," said Rodgers. "And, once again, we’re conceding from set pieces. I don’t care what team you’re on, if you’re conceding set-piece goals, you’re not going to win many games. If you look at the season, there’s been a pattern and we need to eliminate it next season or we will be in the same position."

That same position, watching some other side raise the MLS Cup in triumph, is one the Red Bulls have remained in for 15 seasons now and counting. They also remain in the same position as last season, as the San Jose Earthquakes also cut short the Red Bulls' postseason run in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinal rounds.

Unfortunately, the Red Bulls finished out of position on their set pieces Thursday night as they have done enough times throughout the season to worry supporters everywhere. It was a combination of poor marking and a case of bad luck.

And, it resulted in the same ol' Red Bulls being kicked free and clear of the MLS Playoffs once again.

Tainio Take Out. Rodgers's goal in the 4th minute let the Red Bulls set the tone to open the match, but the injury to defensive midfielder Teemu Tainio 10 minutes later seemed to expose a gap in the Red Bulls midfield already missing a suspended Rafael Marquez. The troubles didn't follow immediately, but Thierry Henry admitted after the match that the absences of Tainio and Marquez made their mark on the final result.

“You kind of don’t think about it when you are playing the game," said Henry. "But we already lost Rafa. I don’t when exactly he came out, but losing a player like Teemu basically you losing two players that play in front of the defense usually. Now that I think about it you don’t want to have them out of the field, but we still gave them a good run.”

Red Bulls coach Hans Backe also admitted that Tainio's premature exit forced Henry to drop deeper into the midfield to provide support to Dax McCarty and Stephane Auvray.

"When Teemu is not on the pitch with his distribution, I feel Thierry likes to get involved deep as a second striker to get involved in the build up,” said Backe.

48. That's the last minute a Red Bulls player registered a shot on target as L.A. netminder Josh Saunders kept Rodgers out of the net in the 48th minute for his second and last save of the match. New York created multiple chances in the second half, but struggled to direct any of them on net against a Galaxy defense led by Omar Gonzalez that firmly established its shape.

“I think that we figured out how to deal with them," said Donovan. "Henry came back into the midfield and made it difficult. He was finding little spots and we were kind of pulled apart. I think once we figured that out and once we were better with the ball we started picking them apart and creating chances."

Two Step. New York were the only MLS club to claim a regular season series win against the Galaxy with a draw in May and win in October. That provides little consolation to Henry, who concedes that the Galaxy ultimately won the matches when they counted the most.

“They won," said Henry. "They beat us at our place. They beat us at their place. So, at the end of the day, there’s nothing to say about it. We gave it a go.”

Rapid Reax: Galaxy 2, Red Bulls 1

November, 4, 2011
11/04/11
1:01
AM ET
Heading into Thursday's semifinal finale against the Galaxy, a draw was as good as a loss to the Red Bulls' playoff chances. An actual loss just removed all doubt.

Los Angeles answered an early go-ahead goal by Luke Rodgers with two of their own to eliminate the Red Bulls from the MLS Playoffs with a 2-1 win at the Home Depot Center on Thursday evening. Mike Magee and Landon Donovan provided all of the scoring for the Galaxy as the former headed home an equalizer before halftime while the latter converted a penalty kick in the 75th minute to seal the win for the Supporters Shield winners, who now prepare to kick off at home against Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Final match on Sunday.

Luke Rodgers set the attacking tone for the Red Bulls in the 4th minute by finding himself on the receiving end of a Thierry Henry through ball and catching Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez out of position. Rodgers trotted into the penalty area and casually pushed a right-footed shot past a diving Josh Saunders to give the Red Bulls an early 1-0 lead.

That lead didn't make it to halftime as L.A.'s hero at Red Bull Arena last Sunday, Mike Magee, connected a header in the 42nd minute from a David Beckham corner kick. That makes for two consecutive games in which Magee and Beckham provided all of the Galaxy's scoring, with both goals culminating from plays initiated by free kicks. A second-half foul by Red Bulls fullback Roy Miller sent the home side to the penalty spot, enabling Donovan to collect the game winner with a right-footed shot past Red Bulls shot stopper Frank Rost.

The loss officially ends the 2011 season for the New York Red Bulls. It also leaves them exiting the MLS Playoffs in the same round last season when the San Jose Earthquakes eliminated New York in the second leg of their playoff semifinal home-and-home series.

Play of the Game: Beckham's Bad Bounce. A David Beckham header in the 31st minute of a ball cleared by the Galaxy back line looked innocent enough. Beckham tracked the ball down and connected with it before the shorter Dane Richards could sneak in. The play moved into the Galaxy's attacking third -- but Beckham didn't.

The English midfielder struggled to get to his feet and stayed put when he did, just bending over with his hands on his head before crumpling to the ground. A Galaxy trainer escorted him off the field and provided Beckham with smelling salts before the midfielder would return to the game. It took him a while to get his bearings, but when he did, it finished with Magee putting the ball in the back of the net for an L.A. equalizer.

Whatever sent Beckham to the ground, it wasn't enough to mitigate his impact on the game. The Galaxy's chances hung in the balance, and the club's designated player did not disappoint by helping to ensure L.A. supporters would see their club play once more at home this season.

Four. That's how many shots Galaxy striker Robbie Keane attempted before halftime, which, along with his two shots on target, led all players at the break. Keane had ample opportunities to draw his side level before Magee's equalizer, but found himself frustrated in the penalty area by effective defense by Tim Ream, the goal post, and Red Bulls 'keeper Frank Rost making up for his own mistakes. His efforts ended up not hurting his club's chances, but he gets paid designated player monies to finish the chances he failed to convert on Thursday.

Feeling Foul. New York learned before the match that the MLS Disciplinary Committee extended Rafael Marquez's suspension from one match to three, which would have theoretically eliminated him from the remainder of the Red Bulls' postseason run regardless of Thursday's result.

Rather than practice restraint against a Galaxy side that's disciplined in drawing fouls, the Red Bulls went for broke. Rodgers created early tension by picking up a yellow card mere moments after scoring the match's opening goal, while a second-half yellow for Henry earned the Red Bulls team captain an automatic one-game suspension for accrued cards. Those penalties now carry over to the start of the 2012 MLS Season after Thursday's loss.

Déjà Vu. Unfortunately for the Red Bulls, the scoring script wound up one goal and one minute shy of perfectly following their initial encounter against the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in May. Like Rodgers, Henry opened the scoring in that match in the 4th minute. Unlike Magee, Donovan answered the early Red Bulls lead with an game-tying strike in the 41st minute -- just one minute shy of Magee's 42nd-minute equalizer. That result was enough to finish off the Red Bulls, with Donovan's penalty kick merely providing the exclamation point.

W2W4: NY Red Bulls at LA Galaxy

November, 3, 2011
11/03/11
10:49
AM ET


Both the Red Bulls and Galaxy have not hesitated to put down their opponents ahead of their playoff clash on Thursday, but neither side can win on words alone.

The war of a million words will end with a single match on Thursday evening as the New York Red Bulls pay a visit to the Home Depot Center to face the Los Angeles Galaxy (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes) in the second leg of the MLS Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal round.

L.A. claimed a 1-0 victory in the contentious first leg at Red Bull Arena on Sunday afternoon courtesy of a Mike Magee volley that caught the Red Bulls' defense on its heels. However, that early strike did nothing to assuage tempers as the match concluded with a brawl near center circle that left RBNY center back Stephen Keel on the ground while teammate Rafael Marquez and Galaxy midfielder Juninho received red cards for their roles in the melee.

Magee's finish of a David Beckham lob pass means the Red Bulls will need to score no less than two goals to advance to the Western Conference Final round. The MLS Playoffs semifinal round's two-legged, home-and-home format is decided by goals scored on aggregate, meaning the winner is the team with the most goals combined after both legs. L.A's current 1-0 lead on aggregate means a 1-0 Red Bulls lead at the end of regulation on Thursday would send the match into extra time and a possible penalty shootout, while a draw at the end of regulation would let the Galaxy advance.

Both sides know which club awaits them with a win on Thursday night, as Real Salt Lake held on to a 3-2 win on aggregate over the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday night. RSL would host the Red Bulls next Sunday with a win, while the Claret-and-Cobalt would head to Los Angeles following a Galaxy victory by nature of L.A.'s home-field advantage resulting from their Supporters' Shield win.

Halfway House. To punch their ticket to Salt Lake City, New York needs to do what no MLS club has done this season -- defeat the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center. L.A. boasts an unbeaten 12-0-5 record at home that includes an eight-game winning streak in MLS regular season play dating back to July 4.

L.A.'s home-field advantage may feel diminished due to the building's location, though. The HDC's presence on Cal State Dominguez Hill's campus involves an agreement that caps attendance at 15,000 for Galaxy weeknight games to allow parking for CSUDH students and faculty. CSUDH and the Galaxy reached an agreement to bump up that cap to 20,000 for Thursday's semifinal, but that still guarantees approximately 7,000 seats empty at first kick.

Key Matchup: Marquez's Replacement vs. Gonzalez. NY coach Hans Backe has a decision to make in replacing Rafa Marquez in the midfield, as the much-maligned midfielder's red card triggered an automatic one-game suspension for tonight's match. Red Bulls supporters may waiver in their support of Marquez following his inconsistent play on the field and provocative statements off it, but Rafa's form has trended upward since being moved into a defensive midfielder role from his earlier positioning at Tim Ream's center back partner.

Backe's decision to go with Dax McCarty, Stephane Auvray, Mehdi Ballouchy, or another plan entirely gets added emphasis when recalling why New York struggled to build pressure in the attacking third: Galaxy center back and MLS Defender of the Year candidate Omar Gonzalez. Gonzalez seemingly broke down every attack on the middle, leading all players with nine intercepted balls and 14 cleared ones on Sunday according to the Opta Chalkboards.

New York will get some help on the wings with Jan Gunnar Solli returning from suspension, but that doesn't help establish any pressure in the middle on Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza. There may be a crack in the Galaxy defense with Juninho's absence, but that crack's only as wide as the distribution lanes created by Marquez's replacement.

Temper, Temper. The war of words between New York and Los Angeles dates back to Landon Donovan's comments about Luke Rodgers following the two sides' 1-1 draw in May. Rodgers citied Donovan's constant chirping with the referees, which provoked Donovan to respond "Who is Luke Rogers?" (sic) via Twitter.

It seemingly has heated up in recent days with Todd Dunivant saying to ESPNLosAngeles that he "(doesn't) think anyone fears the Red Bulls" and Donovan describing the Red Bulls as a "disgraceful" team of "cheap shot" artists.

New York returned in kind, with Backe describing his side as "on another level" and Rodgers citing Sunday's in-game taunts of "You're in my country now" from Galaxy 'keeper Josh Saunders during a Wednesday conference call as evidence that "that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones."

The final word will come with the referee's final whistle, but it remains to be seen if either side's tough talk will tilt Thursday's result in anyone's favor -- or distract them from a favorable result.

Foul Play. Donovan made waves by describing the Red Bulls as cheap, but the question unasked is: Does he have a point?

Since there's no way to measure intangibles like a little Thierry Henry bump in the run of play or an errant Joel Lindpere elbow in the box, there's no exact way to measure.

That said, there was a differential of three fouls per 90 minutes in the Galaxy's favor at the end of the MLS regular season. L.A. finished with a +1.6 foul differential, which means they suffered an average of 1.6 fouls per game more than they committed. New York, on the other hand, finished with the second-worst foul differential at -1.7 fouls per 90 minutes, which means they commit 1.7 more fouls than they suffer per game on average.

Attacking sides tend to draw more fouls while defensive ones tend to commit them, meaning the Red Bulls will need to remain disciplined to ensure Beckham doesn't wind up with any more free kicks than he needs on Thursday night.

Sustained Stampede. Tonight's first whistle will commence New York's fourth match in 14 days and third in three different cities over the past week. Backe indicated in an earlier conference call that he intends to pick his best 11 to start regardless of rest, but he'll also need to be leery of nagging injuries that have plagued the likes of Henry, Rodgers, and Teemu Tainio among others.

The Red Bulls coach doesn't like to use all of his substitutes, which continues to leave change-of-pace players like Ballouchy and Juan Agudelo on his bench. If endurance becomes an issue for a busy Red Bulls side -- especially in a deciding match that could go to extra time or penalty kicks -- who, if anyone, will Backe call upon to provide for a late-game burst?

Video: Thierry Henry on SportsCenter

November, 1, 2011
11/01/11
12:59
AM ET



Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry calls in to SportsCenter to talk about the end of the first leg, and how big the loss of Rafa Marquez will be to the squad.
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Red Bulls

RBNY Recap: Red Bulls, Galaxy come to blows as Magee gives L.A. a 1-0 lead

October, 30, 2011
10/30/11
10:03
PM ET
Rafael Marquez likely did not plan to leave himself with only a puncher's chance at playing meaningful soccer again in 2011.

In the waning moments of the Red Bulls' 1-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy at Red Bull Arena in the first leg of the MLS Playoffs Western Conference semifinal round, Marquez came as close as any of his teammates at finding the back of the net for an equalizer.

He picked up a Thierry Henry deflection of a Joel Lindpere cross near the arc in the 91st minute and fired a shot through traffic that a diving Galaxy 'keeper Josh Saunders somehow punched back out. Henry put the rebound off the woodwork, but the moment to draw level with the 2011 Supporters Shield winners in stoppage time came and went with Marquez.

Then Marquez himself came and went from the series entirely. Referee Alex Prus blew the whistle four minutes after Marquez's scoring chance and with the ball at the frustrated Mexican defender's feet, which left Marquez venting his frustrating by throwing the ball at Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan.

Galaxy forward Adam Cristman responded with a swing at Marquez, triggering a brawl near center circle that concluded with both sides restraining their players, Red Bulls center back Stephen Keel on the ground, and Marquez as well as with L.A. midfielder Juninho receiving red cards and automatic one-game suspensions to be served in the second leg for their roles in the melee.

For the Red Bulls, they will largely try to downplay the significance of the scuffle. Most of them did not see what happened, while what happened went down so fast that few players were in a position to respond meaningfully. Even Keel tried to downplay his own role by describing his involvement as getting caught up in the heat of the moment.

"I’m not too sure exactly, tensions were high; you can see it’s a playoff game," said Keel. "You got two teams battling it out for 90 minutes, you know both teams want to win, at the end there is a little scuffle, nothing major. I think someone comes in to break it up and everything; I just got knocked in the mouth a little bit – nothing major. It’s not a big deal."

Marquez fell in the melee's closing moments due to a phantom punch from no one in particular, but the damage he feigned will still be felt by his side over the next few days. New York now heads to the Home Depot Center on Thursday (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes) down one goal on aggregate and against a Galaxy side that is unbeaten at home. They make the trip just eight days after opening their postseason campaign in Dallas, and now must do so without a key starter and defensive stalwart in Marquez.

As Donovan implied in his post-game comments, the melee awoke a sleeping giant in the Galaxy to the Red Bulls' so-called "cynical soccer" style.

"In all my years in this league, I have not played against a cheaper team than that," Donovan said to Brian Straus of the Sporting News. "We've seen that stuff all year."

They will get to see that "stuff" one more time this Thursday in the second leg of the semifinal round. They just won't see Marquez in the lineup.

And unless the Red Bulls can raise their form to the Galaxy's level at home, no one else will see Marquez in 2011, either.

Get Back. A David Beckham lob ball played a crucial role to enable Mike Magee getting behind the Red Bulls back line and into position for the volley that would become the game's only goal. The role Robbie Keane played remains to be seen.

Replays reflected that either Magee or Keane may have been offside when Beckham pushed the ball up from a free kick, which the Red Bulls' back four picked up in an attempt to trap the Irish striker. However, the action followed a sprinting Magee and left the likes of Keel and Tim Ream on their heels as Keane drew their attention away. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe did not like how the goal came about, but believes his defense needs to be ready for every possible scenario.

"It’s a little tricky on the goal," said Backe. "First, Keane was offside, but I think we have seven guys raise their hand and call for an offside, and of course you can’t do it. And then it was either Magee or (Todd) Dunivant who scored, came as a late runner. You can’t give away a goal like this, you just have to be more sharp. It’s a frustrating goal to concede."

Immovable Object. New York struggled to keep many of their numerous scoring chances on target, but even the balls that found the net couldn't find their way past an effective Josh Saunders, whose fingertip save on a looping Keel header and a derailed Dane Richards run were just a few of his many efforts to loom large over the Red Bulls attack.

The Galaxy netminder collected five saves en route to a clean sheet in the first leg, but his performance wasn't enough to leave Thierry Henry impressed.

"He had one great reflex, other than that he didn’t do much," said Henry. "He saved the ball from Joel Lindpere, after that, I think Dane (Richards) could have done better with his one-against-one. (Saunders) had a good game, but the way they were defending was very good. They were blocking shots, (Landon) Donovan coming back and saving goals sometimes, Becks (David Beckham) and some other players."

One. Henry may not have been impressed with Saunders's efforts on Sunday, but it wasn't as if his side tested the Galaxy 'keeper for prolonged periods. Both New York and Los Angeles took tenuous holds on the run of play all afternoon, but the Red Bulls struggled to create prolonged pressure on the opposing net. Only one of the New York's shots on target occurred before halftime while the Red Bulls' attacking players crashed the net with impunity for only a few fleeting moments after halftime.

Unlike regular season matches, that momentum carries over to Thursday's rematch at the Home Depot Center whether the Red Bulls want it to or not. Stephen Keel takes solace in knowing that it's only a one-goal deficit with no away-goal tiebreaker, meaning they can still push their postseason progress forward with a strong finish against the Galaxy.

"We look at it like it’s a 180 minute match and we are at half-time, right down we are down one-nill," said Keel. "Obviously being at home we wanted to get a better result, but it’s one of those things we got to go to L.A., once again with our backs against the wall. We got the second-half – 90 minutes and we got to get a win. It’s as simple as that."

Jockeying for Trouble. A tough tackle against FC Dallas left Jan Gunnar Solli out of the starting XI against the Galaxy on Sunday, but the Red Bulls brass didn't let a little thing like an automatic one-game suspension from a red card keep their Norweigan fullback from making sweet music on Sunday.

Solli covered the DJ duties at Red Bull Arena during halftime, playing up his personal interests in music while his teammates drew up their second-half strategy for the visiting Galaxy. That rankled many who didn't appreciate seeing Solli featured prominently after getting himself ejected less than a week ago, including Chivas striker and former Red Bull Juan Pablo Angel.

"Player that was suspended for the most important game of the season,gets to DJ while team mates are breaking their buts off #shocking," Angel said via Twitter.

W2W4: Red Bulls vs. Galaxy

October, 30, 2011
10/30/11
11:29
AM ET
A return to the MLS semifinals for the Red Bulls means a return engagement against the Supporters Shield-winning Los Angeles Galaxy side that commences Sunday afternoon at Red Bull Arena (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes). Sunday’s contest represents the first leg of a home-and-home series in which the club scoring more goals on aggregate through both legs will be declared the winner.

New York finished their regular season encounters against the Galaxy with a feat few MLS sides can match -- a winning record. Thierry Henry had the first and last word on the regular season scoresheets against L.A., as the French striker netted an early go-ahead goal in a 1-1 draw at the Home Depot Center last May as well as the insurance goal in a 2-0 win against a depleted Galaxy side on Oct. 4.

Henry also factored favorably on both sides of the ball in his MLS playoffs debut as New York collected a 2-0 win over FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park last Wednesday. The Red Bulls' captain supported a second-half strike by Joel Lindpere with a goal of his own in stoppage time, but made his mark on the match by keeping FCD midfielder Daniel Hernandez in check as the home side struggled to finish any of its numerous scoring chances.

Los Angeles arrives rested and relaxed for Sunday’s contest by virtue of the Round of 16 bye awarded to the Supporters Shield winner. The Galaxy clinched the league’s best record shortly after their loss to the Red Bulls a few weeks ago, which allowed L.A. head coach Bruce Arena to rest playmakers Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane down the stretch.

Nothing to Fear. Prognosticators may continue to pick the Red Bulls as the best MLS club on paper, but their midseason struggles and league-leading draws left little to intimidate clubs across the league. Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant admitted as much.

“I don’t think anyone fears New York, and we would love that [matchup],” the former Red Bull said to ESPNLosAngeles.com.

New York is rolling with five wins in their last seven matches, but their midseason reputation of futility still precedes them.

Key Matchup: Beckham vs. Ream. Even with Donovan and Keane under wraps in recent weeks, the Galaxy attack kept rolling along with David Beckham leading the charge. Beckham, with a team-leading 15 assists in what has been his best MLS season, continues to execute his signature free kicks and passing distribution with ease to provide service to an attack that largely revolves around the English midfielder.

Since Henry can’t man-mark his longtime rival as he did against FCD’s Hernandez and expect to score, someone will need to put himself on the receiving end of Beckham’s lob passes. That defensive response will by led by Tim Ream, the young Red Bulls defender struggling to reestablish his confidence on the pitch. With Jan Gunnar Solli suspended, Rafael Marquez playing in the midfield, and Stephen Keel still adjusting to life as a starter, that leaves Ream as the leader in the middle of the Red Bulls’ back four and with a mandate to get in the way of any Galaxy pressure up top while not giving away the ball in his own penalty area.

The Beckham Experiment may seek an MLS Cup win as success, but the development of Ream revolves around the Red Bulls putting their promising center back in position to play shutdown defense against anyone -- even a legendary midfielder like Becks.

Familiar Faces. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe confirmed during a conference call on Friday that he expect to make few personnel changes for his club’s clash with the Galaxy. He confirmed that Carlos Mendes will fill in at right back for Solli and that he brought a short bench to Dallas due to limited space on the club’s charter flight, but otherwise expects to keep the starting XI intact.

If New York intends to reach the Western Conference Final round, that means Backe’s side will need to leg out three playoff matches in eight days.

Luke Good. One other familiar face that may take the pitch on Sunday is Luke Rodgers, who missed the do-or-die match against FC Dallas due to injury. Backe indicated that he intends to pick Rodgers unless the English striker is physically incapacitated, which would likely move Dane Richards back to his regular spot on the right wing. New York didn’t miss their freshman forward in their win over FCD, but their offense always appears more open with him than without him.

Complete 180. A win on Sunday may boost morale for the Red Bulls, but it still leaves them with 90 minutes to play at the Home Depot Center later this week. New York can only advance to the Western Conference Final by outscoring the Galaxy on aggregate -- meaning whatever happens on Sunday may not be enough to hold one of the most prolific attacks in league history.

So while Henry, Rodgers, and the Red Bulls attack look to get behind Dunivant, Omar Gonzalez, the the Galaxy back line, they need to remain disciplined on both sides of the ball and not let the Galaxy’s offense keep pace. Sunday is only the first half of this story -- there will still be 90 minutes left to play after the whistle.


RBNY Recap: Cynical soccer leaves Red Bulls sitting pretty after FCD win

October, 27, 2011
10/27/11
10:56
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Cynical soccer, as Red Bulls coach Hans Backe describes it, isn’t supposed to be pretty.

During the majority of the Red Bulls’ 2-0 wild card victory over FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park on Wednesday night, Backe’s description was apt. New York rarely controlled the run of play for meaningful stretches and generally stuck to game plan of withstanding the FCD pressure and obstructing every pass and cross that could feed the opposing attack.

Still, a game plan executed to perfection can still create soccer worth seeing – just as it did in the 61st minute by way of a Joel Lindpere go-ahead goal. FCD ‘keeper Kevin Hartman parried a Lindpere shot wide and towards Dane Richards, who smartly backheeled the ball parallel to the penalty area up to Mehdi Ballouchy. Ballouchy, who had entered the match only moments earlier for his first meaningful MLS action since mid-September, took care of the rest.

“Dane got the ball up high on the right and I was yelling right behind him ‘Play me back the ball’ and I decided (to pass low) instead of crossing, because I think most fullbacks are expecting the block off of the cross but forget about the pass on the ground,” said Ballouchy. “The back four stepped up and opened up Joel and he was able to finish. We were fortunate to get the first goal against the run of play.”

It came about quickly and came together perfectly, with Lindpere crediting the Morocccan midfielder in creating the Red Bulls’ best scoring chance of the game.

“Mehdi gave me a great ball,” said Lindpere. “I was timing my run very perfectly and maybe I didn’t hit (it) so hard but it was difficult to reach for the goalie.”

Thierry Henry’s stoppage-time strike lacked the suave of Lindpere’s goal, but the Red Bulls team captain finished that ball following 90-plus minutes of keeping FCD midfielder Daniel Hernandez in check. Henry was charged with keeping Hernandez out of the picture on the FCD offensive end, with Backe admitting that the Red Bulls’ game plan hinged on his French striker’s results.

“We said before the game was the key has to be to close down Hernandez’s distribution,” said Backe. “We put Thierry on him and set with the back four and midfield just to cover the space for the pace guys in Dallas, the front three guys, and give them as little space as possible in closing down Hernandez. That worked quite well, because (Igo) Ihemelu or (George) John has to drive out and had to do the distribution. They went wide sometimes, but we were solid in the middle.”

That solid performance left New York standing at the final whistle with a two-goal victory and two games against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference bracket now added to the schedule. It wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t always telegenic.

But, as Backe sees it, that just wouldn’t be the Red Bulls’ cynical style these days.

“We have played decent football,” said Backe. “I think we’re at the right time. Perhaps close to our peak.”

Empty Net. New York now has four wins in their past six matches between the regular season and postseason, with ‘keeper Frank Rost playing a prominent role in each victory. The German shot stopper has accrued clean sheets in each of the club’s last five wins dating back to New York’s prior visit to Pizza Hut Park in September. While he certainly played a role in keeping opposing offenses out of the New York net, Rost acknowledges that his side’s seeming ability to score often makes his job a little easier.

“We shoot a goal in every match if we get no goal,” said Rost. “Maybe the players have this now in the blood.”

Game of Chance. FCD created twice as many scoring chances as the Red Bulls on Wednesday, but never quite cracked the combination that would make the Red Bulls back line sweat. The numbers paint a picture favoring the Dallas attack, but Backe didn’t feel the pressure outside of a first-half header by Jackson that went for naught.

“I don’t think it was that many chances,” said Backe. “It had one good header or close, but otherwise, I can’t really find a free run or a 100-percent scoring chance. Some half chances, but not the really big one.”

Looking Ahead. Now that New York has dispatched of the 2010 MLS Cup runners-up in the do-or-die wild card round, they can focus their efforts on preparing for their home-and-home semifinal series against the Supporters Shield winners in Los Angeles.

Henry recognizes that the path through the Galaxy won’t be easy, but admits that his side’s form will prepare them better than any self-esteem derived from their recent success.

“The confidence level doesn’t mean anything in the playoffs,” said Henry. “We know it won’t be easy, but don’t get me wrong -- We are in a better situation now the way we are playing, mentally. The team is much stronger because we’re playing as a team. Everyone’s going to say LA against the Red Bulls is going to be a big game, but they are the favorites. So we’ll try to cause an upset.”

Rapid Reaction: Red Bulls 2, FC Dallas 0

October, 26, 2011
10/26/11
11:11
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A second-half strike by Joel Lindpere helped a shorthanded Red Bulls side rise to the semifinal round of the 2011 MLS Playoffs following a 2-0 win over FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park on Wednesday evening.

Lindpere threaded the FCD back line near the penalty spot and converted a Mehdi Ballouchy cross in the 61st minute to net the game winner and lift the Red Bulls out of the Wild Card round and into a home-and-home series against the Supporters Shield winner, the Los Angeles Galaxy. Thierry Henry provided an insurance goal in stoppage time by tapping in a rebound from his own shot off FCD 'keeper Kevin Hartman in the 98th minute to seal the win for the visiting side.

Lindpere's goal also came about despite a shaky effort from a Red Bulls attacking corps that only controlled the run of play in fits and starts. New York registered six shots on target from 13 attempts against a relentless home side, with a Henry shot before halftime that sailed over the top crossbar representing the Red Bulls' best scoring chance preceding Lindpere's goal.

However, FC Dallas once again struggled to turn their many chances created into pressure on Red Bulls 'keeper Frank Rost. FCD created seven shots on target from 23 attempts with midfielders Brek Shea and Martin Chavez leading the way with three and five attempts respectively but only one shot on target between them. That duo fell behind FCD defender Jackson, who led the way with four of the club's seven shots on target and firing away from inside and outside the penalty area.

Play of the Game: Solli Sees Red. New York held on for the win, but they needed to do it a man down for the final 10 minutes courtesy of a red card awarded to right fullback Jan Gunnar Solli.

With Colombian defender Jair Benitez obstructing his run, Solli conceded a ball to FCD midfielder Daniel Cruz near the center circle in the 79th minute. In an attempt to make up for his own miscue, the Norwegian fullback immediately sprinted and dived from behind into Daniel Hernandez. Solli's slide brought Hernandez to the ground and brought the red card out of referee Ricardo Salazar's pocket.

It didn't affect the final result, but it left New York in danger of blowing the lead in the game's final moments just as they have so many times in their league-tying 16 draws during the 2011 regular season. It also triggers an automatic one-game suspension for Solli, who will now miss the first leg of the home-and-home series against the Galaxy and leave Red Bulls coach Hans Backe searching for his replacement on short notice.

Zero. That's how many goals Frank Rost allowed in collecting his first MLS postseason clean sheet and his sixth shutout of the season. Rost also earned his first career clean sheet in MLS play in the Red Bulls' 1-0 win at FC Dallas on September 17.

Free Falling. FC Dallas hoped to repeat the run that left them as the MLS Cup runners-up in 2010, but failed to find the form that kept them near the top of the table in the early goings of the 2011 regular season. FCD coach Schellas Hyndman saw his side sink to a 2-8 finish in all competition since losing to the Red Bulls in September.

Five for Fighting. Backe couldn't do much to counter having to play the final minutes of Wednesday's match with 10 men, but he did not leave himself with many options on his own bench. The Red Bulls coach picked five players -- Ballouchy, Juan Agudelo, Stephane Auvray, Carlos Mendes, and reserve 'keeper Bouna Coundoul -- to ride the pine in Dallas and see their teammates advance to victory.

Backe indicated to MLSsoccer.com's Jason Saghini before the match that he may intend to put fresh legs on the field in next weekend's match against the Galaxy. But how many of them would come from the Red Bulls reserves that didn't make the trip to Dallas?

As the lowest living seed in the MLS Playoffs, New York's playoff path will run through Red Bull Arena next Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes) but against a star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy side that will be a lot healthier than the club's prior visit to Harrison earlier this month.

W2W4: NY Red Bulls at FC Dallas

October, 26, 2011
10/26/11
11:36
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The 2011 MLS Playoffs kick off in earnest on Wednesday evening as FC Dallas play host to the Red Bulls at Pizza Hut Park in a wild card clash that will end one club's postseason path courtesy of the round's one-and-done format.

For a Red Bulls side picked by many in the preseason to win MLS Cup outright, that's a welcome problem to have after needing all 34 regular season contests to earn the right to play tonight. They still can't sing their redemption song until FC Dallas has its say as the home side looks to better a 2010 MLS Cup runners-up finish.

However, one Red Bulls player who will have no say in Wednesday's result is English striker Luke Rodgers. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe confirmed on Tuesday that Rodgers would miss Wednesday's match due to treatment of a knee injury incurred during the club's regular season finale win against the Philadelphia Union last Thursday.

New York came out on top of their regular season confrontations against FCD in 2011. A late Thierry Henry equalizer answered a second-half brace by Martin Chavez and salvaged a 2-2 draw against FCD at Red Bull Arena on July 25, while Rodgers provided all of the offense in a 1-0 win at Pizza Hut Park on Sept. 17 that reignited the Red Bulls' late playoff push.

Luke Out. The Red Bulls will undoubtedly miss their freshman forward, especially considering the club is 1-9-4 in matches without the pesky Rodgers in the starting XI -- with the sole win coming against the Seattle Sounders during MLS First Kick festivities back on March 19. They also posted a 4-2-1 record down the stretch following Rodgers' return from a bout with plantar fasciitis that kept their English striker on the shelf for most of the summer.

Rodgers undoubtedly unlocked the Red Bulls' inconsistent attack with his presence up top and his pressure against opposing back lines, just as he did in scoring the game's only goal against FC Dallas in September. But he did the dirty work in that match despite the club missing Henry and Roy Miller due to injury as well as Jan Gunnar Solli and Rafael Marquez due to suspensions. New York may lack the guy who finished off FCD, but they will have four capable contributors this time to pick up the slack.

Key Matchup: Shea vs. McCarty. Another key player to miss that September match was FCD winger and team-leading scorer Brek Shea, who also served a one-game suspension on that date due to yellow card accumulation. The young Shea, who netted 11 goals in 31 appearances in 2011, experienced a breakout season drawing league MVP considerations in addition to rave reviews regarding his contributions to the U.S. Men's National Team.

Shea will appear in FCD coach Schellas Hyndman's starting lineup, and Backe will likely counter with Shea's former teammate in defensive midfielder Dax McCarty. McCarty will likely be charged with shutting down any activity by Shea on the right flank, as Solli tends to push up in an offensive-minded role from his right fullback position while regular right midfielder Dane Richards likely starts up top in place of the injured Rodgers.

That leaves McCarty, a player suspended by the club in the Red Bulls' penultimate match at Sporting Kansas City for an "internal team matter" as well as one who has seen his playing time diminish in concert with Marquez's return to a defensive midfielder role. Add in the burden of being the player New York received from D.C. United in exchange for 2011 Golden Boot winner Dwayne De Rosario and the expectations thrust on McCarty could not be higher.

But hey, no pressure.

Make It Stop. New York captured a 1-0 victory against FC Dallas in September, but it wasn't for lack of trying on the former's part. FCD created more than double New York's chances on net in that match, with seven of their 18 attempts registering as a shot on target as compared to only two of New York's seven attempts.

That onslaught came about without Shea, Chavez (also suspended for yellow card accumulation) and injured midfielder David Ferreira. It also came in a busy stretch for FCD that came about due to CONCACAF Champions League commitments as well as with a melancholy mood following the death of club dignitary Bobby Rhine. New York escaped that match with a win, but will need stronger defensive contributions from Tim Ream, Stephen Keel, and others to prevent FCD from implementing a similar style.

Press On. With an FCD back line including effective contributions from George John, Zach Loyd, and others, Hyndman will likely call upon the defensive press he used to paralyze the Red Bulls attack in both regular season matches. If Marquez and Teemu Tainio can't link up to the forwards or Joel Lindpere struggles to join the attack on the left side, FCD could once again impose its defensive will on the Red Bulls and bide its time until a scoring chance presents itself.

Get Your Kicks. Tonight's match is a winner-take-all affair, which means New York can't sneak out with one of its patented draws this time around. In the event that the score is tied at the end of regulation, two 15-minute periods of extra time would ensue to determine a winner. And if that fails to yield a result, the game would then advance to a penalty shootout.

New York hasn't converted a penalty kick since Sept. 24 against the Portland Timbers -- and Rodgers netted that one. Backe reportedly did not practice penalty kicks before his players boarded the plane for Dallas on Tuesday, while the club's uncertainty on their primary free kick taker never really resolved itself. Anything could happen in a penalty shootout, including the order which Backe picks for his side's participation.

RBNY Recap: Playoff-bound Red Bulls

October, 21, 2011
10/21/11
9:49
AM ET


New York's regular season wasn't supposed to end this way.

Picked by prognosticators as "the best in MLS on paper" and burdened with self-imposed expectations of winning the Supporters' Shield, no one expected the Red Bulls to need all 34 weeks -- including a 1-0 win over Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia Union on Thursday evening -- to clinch the last-remaining wild card berth.

And to realize that lesser feat, it took a league-leading 16 draws (including a league-high 10 on the road), only one win outside the Eastern Time Zone, a suspension to team captain Thierry Henry in the club's penultimate match, and a surging D.C. United running out of gas down the stretch.

Red Bulls coach Hans Backe still kept the hearts and minds of his club in line despite its midseason missteps. Backe admitted he didn't think it would take this long for the Red Bulls to punch their postseason ticket, but he's comfortable with his side's form in recent weeks.

"We looked very, very solid," Backe said. "Then we had the break for the Gold Cup and lost six players and after that we've been more or less striving to find our rhythm. But the last five or six games have looked much, much better."

Their recent form should help the Red Bulls get ready to make the most of their second consecutive postseason appearance and 11th overall. The loss to Sporting Kansas City notwithstanding, New York has seen its midfield reestablish its focus on possession while the return of Luke Rodgers from injury has unlocked the club's attack in recent weeks. They may not be peaking, but they're as dangerous as they can be heading into the wild-card round.

"If you look at the last month, we have been on a nice run with three wins, one tied game before the Kansas game," Backe said. "Of course going one man down after 29 minutes is difficult, so I don’t really count that game. It looks like we hopefully, hopefully are closer to a peak when you go into the playoffs."

Setting the bar for playoff success is another matter. The newly imposed wild-card berths leave New York further from the Home Depot Center main stage in mid-November, and further from the quarterfinals round which the Red Bulls have only cleared twice in club history. And supporters know all too well that this New York side has fallen flat for weeks at a time, often at a moment's notice and always without warning.

It's not the path the Red Bulls intended to follow back in March, but it's still a narrow path that has not concluded prematurely. The conclusion to this 2011 MLS campaign has yet to be written, which allows Backe to believe his club can continue to follow to make a viable run for the MLS Cup.

"It is such a small margin to win these games, is like if you are going to a World Cup or something when you play that many games," Backe said. "We need to find the right performance, the right play, the right form just that day, then we can go through. I think it is even, I still think (Los Angeles) has been outstanding this year, but you know better than me that the team that has qualified eighth has won the cup. Everything is possible."

+11. According to the Opta Chalkboards, that's the interception differential which helped the Red Bulls defense keep a typically-potent Union attack in check. Jan Gunnar Solli led the way with five intercepted balls (four of which came in the first half), though Roy Miller (four) and Tim Ream (three) were no slouches, either. Their combined performace helped reinforce what Ream believes was one of the best defensive efforts by the Red Bulls this season.

"I think it was definitely the most complete," said Ream. "Their only real chances were from 20-25 yards out and those were handled pretty easily. Overall I definitely think it’s – (outsides) of the first five or six games - where we wanted to be all year."

Take Your Chances. An Faryd Mondragon own goal resulting from a rebound following a Dane Richards header boosted the Red Bulls into an early lead, but they didn't follow that up with additional offensive pressure until well into the second half. New York created two other shots on target and one miss, but it's the chances they didn't create that leaves Backe a little frustrated with his side's efforts in the attacking third.

"I believe we should have killed this game in the first half," said Backe. "Definitely could have put the score up two or three nil after 60 minutes, but they stayed in the game of course when we didn’t convert our chances. I’m happy to see that we could handle this pressure and create a number of chances."

One Night Only. According to Peter Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, exactly one match per season for the last eight seasons has ended with a 1-o result in which the only tally came from an own goal. It may only be a coincidence, but it's a happy one that lifted the Red Bulls into the postseason.

Rapid Reaction: Red Bulls 1, Union 0

October, 20, 2011
10/20/11
10:02
PM ET

Recap | Match stats | Player stats

A little help can go a long way, but a little help from a conference rival helped the Red Bulls finally go all the way.

An own goal by Union 'keeper Faryd Mondragon helped the New York Red Bulls clinch the last remaining MLS playoff berth in a 1-0 win over Philadelphia at Red Bull Arena on Thursday evening. Dane Richards, starting up top in place of the suspended Thierry Henry, headed a Jan Gunnar Solli cross at the near post in the 8th minute, only to have the ensuing rebound bank off Mondragon's arm and into the net for the game's only goal.

New York bucked a Philly defensive trend by creating more attempts on goal and shots on target against the visiting Union, who typically allowed only three shots per game heading into tonight's match. Richards led the Red Bulls with three attempts on goal and two on target, which almost single-handedly topped Philly's meager four attempts and only shot on target by Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer.

The win puts the Red Bulls in temporary control of the 9th overall playoff spot, though a Houston Dynamo win on Saturday could bump New York into the lowest available wild card berth heading into the MLS Playoffs.

Play of the Game: The Own Goal. It likely won't curry favor from the MLS Goal of the Week nomination committee, but how New York's only tally on Thursday's score sheet came about could hint at a postseason recipe for the box.

New York's attackers crashed the penalty box early with a balance that's typically lacking when the offensive strategy revolves around providing service to Henry. Solli had no fewer than four teammates scattered across the box and a Union back line stretched thin in coverage. The lanes were open, the directions clear, and the cross to the diminutive Richards found its mark without much resistance.

If not for the deflection off Mondragon, both Richards and Joel Lindpere stood in prime position to finish the rebound. But that course of events helped New York set the offensive tone for the rest of the night while simultaneously discouraging their guests and the rowdy Sons of Ben who trekked up the New Jersey Turnpike to cheer the visiting side. It was never pretty, but nothing about this Red Bulls side has been this season.

'Keeping It Clean. German shot-stopper Frank Rost picked up a fourth clean sheet in seven matches, which gives the Red Bulls designated player his fourth win of the season -- which now boosts him above fellow 'keepers Bouna Coundoul and Greg Sutton for most team wins. For a club that has started five different 'keepers across the 2011 season, Rost has clearly emerged as the best of the bunch.

Ten. That's how many attempts on target by the Union resulted in shots off target. Philly kept pace with New York in the chances created department, but an effective Red Bulls defense led by team captain Rafael Marquez and supported by maligned back line stalwarts Tim Ream and Roy Miller created enough traffic in the defensive end to let the likes of Sebastian Le Toux and second-half substitute Freddy Adu from developing a Union attack. New York's defense kept it practical in the back, implying that they bought into Red Bulls coach Hans Backe's call for "cynical soccer" in their most important match of the season.

The Kid Stays In the Picture. Backe elected to start Richards up top alongside Luke Rodgers at the expense of teenage phenom Juan Agudelo, who didn't enter the match until the 92nd minute as a late substitute. It worked, as Philly struggled to break up one Red Bulls rush after another. But it also cleared up where Agudelo resides on Backe's depth chart.

New York can now plan their playoff itinerary, but not their opponent. A Houston win this season will cue up a match at FC Dallas or Real Salt Lake, while a Dynamo loss could leave the Red Bulls kicking off at the Colorado Rapids or the Dynamo.

For now, New York can relax. The Red Bulls are finally in the MLS playoffs.

W2W4: NY Red Bulls vs. Philadelphia Union

October, 20, 2011
10/20/11
9:58
AM ET
To finally claim a spot on the 2011 MLS Playoffs marquee, the Red Bulls will need to take just one more step forward.

One point separates the Red Bulls from clinching the last remaining playoff berth as they kick off in their regular-season finale against the Philadelphia Union at Red Bull Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes). New York will decide its postseason plans without team captain Thierry Henry, who will serve a one-game suspension for earning a red card that left his club short-handed for more than an hour in a dispiriting 2-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City last Saturday.

The Union visit Red Bull Arena with their MLS playoff berth all wrapped up, though Philly continues to jockey for position in the playoff standings. Philly could not make a go-ahead curler inside the far post by French forward Sebastian Le Toux stand up in a 1-1 draw against Toronto FC last Saturday, but that result combined with the Red Bulls' loss guaranteed playoff soccer for the City of Brotherly Love.

A wild Wednesday draw between D.C. United and the Portland Timbers left the former eliminated from postseason play and the latter waiting to see if the Red Bulls will cede control of their playoff destiny one last time. Portland needs nothing less than a New York loss to stay alive in the playoff race heading into their season finale at Real Salt Lake on Saturday. An unlikely series of fortunate events could also bring the Chicago Fire back from the brink of playoff elimination if the Timbers and Red Bulls can't claim the last remaining wild-card berth for themselves.

The Guarantee. New York sports teams feature a proud tradition of superstars guaranteeing postseason glory for their sides, from Joe Namath to Mark Messier to Jim Fassel and everyone in between. And with the Red Bulls trying to establish themselves in the NY sports hierarchy, they're now ready for this rite of passage with a little help from English striker Luke Rodgers.

"I’m quite positive we’re going to win the game, and I’m really looking forward to it," Rodgers said to MLSsoccer.com about his club's chances on Thursday. "In my eyes, we can’t be in a better situation, we can only let ourselves down. Win and you’re in. It’s up to us now, there’s no more hiding."

Key Matchup: Richards vs. Philly's Back Four. The Union's back line usually doesn't need much to keep opposing attackers at bay, but speed is always among of their biggest concerns. If Gabriel Farfan or Danny Califf join too many Philly attacks from the back, a speedster could likely outpace them on an ensuing counter and strike before Union 'keeper Faryd Mondragon knows what hit him.

New York can feed its need for speed by calling upon their Jamaican pace setter in midfielder Dane Richards. Richards, along with Joel Lindpere, will need to be prepared to work quickly on the flanks while not allowing Le Toux or Freddy Adu to set their rhythm with wide passing lanes. It means working hard on both sides of the ball, but moreso about stepping on the gas as often as possible to try and catch Philly's back four on their heels or with their back to attack.

Providing service to the forwards up top will remain job one for the Red Bulls midfield, but any added pressure that Richards can add with his speed will only help to put pressure on a Philly defense not renowned for its fleet feet.

Here's Looking at You, Kid. His red card for a retaliatory hit on Sporting midfielder Roger Espinosa may leave Henry missing his shot at winning the league's MVP award, but it's the 14 goals that made the French striker's candidacy possible that his club will miss the most.

Henry's absence forces Red Bulls coach Hans Backe to turn to teenage phenom Juan Agudelo as an attacking answer alongside Rodgers. Their combined total of 15 goals may only be one better than a solo Henry, but that track record should support the eligible pairing's ability to put crooked numbers on the score sheet for the home side. Rodgers can't do it on his own, so Backe will need to fire up the Agudelo Hype Machine and let his young striker pick up where Henry left off in the attacking third.

Oh Captain, My Captain? With Henry watching from the owners' box on Thursday, someone else will need to lead the Red Bulls onto the pitch bearing the captain's armband. And who better to represent all that is right and good about the Red Bulls these days than Rafael Marquez.

Marquez will serve as the temporary captain for the season finale less than one month after he called out his teammates for not playing at the Mexican midfielder's level. Backe did not pick an unqualified captain -- Marquez wears the captain's strap for Mexico -- but did select the one player that can polarize the club's supporters with one poor play. It's likely a vote of confidence in Marquez for his solid play since moving back into the midfield, but will it last?

Something to Believe In. New York's not the only club with something to play for in their regular season finale. The Union remain deadlocked with Sporting KC in the race for the Eastern Conference's overall top spot with the Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo still within shouting distance. No club can finish higher than the 51 points Philly would have with a win, though Sporting can tie that mark and claim the conference's top spot on tiebreakers.

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