New York Soccer: Empire Field

W2W4: Red Bulls v. Columbus Crew

June, 4, 2011
The Red Bulls return home on Saturday evening with a five-game winless streak intact for a regular season rematch against the middling Columbus Crew.

New York failed to secure a win in the month of May after departing Empire Field in Vancouver with a 1-1 draw against the expansion Whitecaps last Saturday. New York conceded its sixth dead ball goal in nine games when Eric Hassli converted an early penalty kick, though Luke Rodgers brought the score level ten minutes later by tapping a Jan Gunnar Solli cross past 'Caps goalkeeper Jay Nolly. However, Rodgers and Dwayne De Rosario -- who started up top in place of the injured Thierry Henry -- did not follow up with the offensive touch necessary to leave Canada with a win.

Three consecutive draws leaves the Red Bulls with a 4-2-6 record and 18 points, or two behind the first-place Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference.

It's Déjà Vu All Over Again. Speak up if you have heard this one before: Injuries and international call-ups have left the Red Bulls fielding a makeshift lineup.

If that sentiment sounds familiar, it should for more reasons than the upcoming Gold Cup tournament. New York played Columbus to a 0-0 draw on March 26 despite losing five starters -- Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo, Rafael Marquez, Dane Richards, and Bouna Coundoul -- to international duty as well as Henry and goalkeeper Greg Sutton to injury. That lineup held the line defensively in front of 'keeper Alex Horwath -- who New York signed one day prior to the match -- but struggled to produce in the attacking zone.

While De Rosario joins the five March call-ups in international play starting this weekend, Henry should resume his attacking duties alongside Rodgers. That should help New York improve on the paltry two shots on target they mustered at Crew Stadium in March.

Key Matchup: Solli v. Columbus's Left Midfield. Solli has eased the absence of Dane Richards by continuing to push up on the right wing and frequently dabbling in the midfield. His club-leading four assists culminated from his work on the wing and his scrambling up and down the flank.

Meanwhile, Columbus still lacks a clear consensus on who can play on the left side after losing Robbie Rogers to Gold Cup duty. Josh Gardner lacked the proper form while attempting to fill Rogers's shoes last week against Chivas USA before being pushed back to his natural left back role at halftime. It is unclear who Crew head coach Robert Warzycha considers plan C or if that plan will fill the gap.

That gap should leave Solli and whoever Hans Backe lines up at right midfield with enough room to create service for the forwards.

Ekpo's Expo. While the Crew's offense has suffered greatly following the departure of longtime captain Guillermo Barros Schelotto, they appeared to unlock something in Emmanuel Ekpo during last week's draw against Chivas USA.

After failing to produce at forward, Warzycha started Ekpo at holding midfielder. The decision rewarded the Nigerian midfielder with his first assist since September 2009, while the decision to let Ekpo join the attack in the second half produced Ekpo's first goal in two years.

New York will need to keep an eye on Ekpo to assure that last week's performance was an aberration and not a new standard.

Setting Expectations. While much has been made of New York's struggles to defend against set pieces, they will have as good an opportunity as any to correct those troubles against Columbus. Despite a long history of success with dead balls, the Crew are the only MLS side left without a goal from a set piece this season.

Crossing the Streams. According to Opta Sports, the New York Red Bulls average more crosses than any other MLS side this season. They also rank third in being called offsides. That should offer enough evidence to demonstrate the pressure of the vaunted Red Bulls' attack. If New York can keep the crosses up while cutting back on the offsides trouble, goals should surely follow.

W2W4: Red Bulls at Vancouver Whitecaps

May, 28, 2011
New York takes another transcontinental trip this weekend as the Red Bulls make their inaugural visit to Empire Field on Saturday to face the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Red Bulls will look to leave their four-game winless streak in Rain City after battling the defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids to a 2-2 draw on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena. Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers quickly answered two first-half goals by Rapids midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, saving the draw and giving New York a share of the first-place lead in the Eastern Conference.

Vancouver will look to find form at home after completing a transcontinental trip that only left the club with extra frequent flier miles. The Whitecaps saw a 1-0 lead in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship finale over Toronto FC washed out due to heavy rain and lightning. Vancouver will now replay the match in its entirety on Saturday, July 2 -- negating the go-ahead goal scored by 'Caps forward Eric Hassli.

Saturday's match will be the third regular season game in eight days for the Red Bulls. New York raised preparation concerns after the club's previous three-games-in-eight-days stretch, which included a friendly loss to the NASL's Montreal Impact and culminated with a 3-2 loss at home to Chivas USA by a Red Bulls club lacking proper form. It remains to be seen how Red Bulls coach Hans Backe modified the club's training regimen to account for the busy work week and the inherent schedule disruption.

However, Vancouver returns home to complete a busy week of its own. The club preceded its washout in Toronto on Wednesday with a 1-0 regular season loss at Gillette Stadium against the New England Revolution last Saturday. That's a three-game-in-eight-days stretch of Vancouver's own, with no positive results to show for it.

Key Matchup: Hans Backe vs. The Depth Chart. Though Dwayne De Rosario, Juan Agudelo, and Tim Ream will take the pitch one last time before departing to join their respective national teams, Gold Cup duties will preclude Dane Richards and Rafael Marquez from joining their teammates at Empire Field. Add in Henry's ongoing knee issue knocking him out of action in Saturday's match and the injuries keeping Carl Robinson and Chris Albright out indefinitely, and Backe will need to try everything to fill in the gaps.

Agudelo will once again get the call to fill in for the injured Henry but was largely invisible in starting last Saturday's draw to the Houston Dynamo and as a substitute against the Rapids. Mehdi Ballouchy filled in admirably for Richards on Wednesday but continues to lack a true position -- or even an obvious gap to fill -- in the Red Bulls' midfield. Defender Carlos Mendes filled in adequately for the injured Marquez but will only have one more outing to find form before possibly being asked to lead the back line.

Different Looks. While Backe knows that any further injuries will exponentially increase his depth problems, Vancouver head coach Teitur Thordarson will simply look for stability from his starting XI. Wednesday's match against Toronto FC represented the first time Thordarson used the same starting XI in two consecutive matches after never previously using that combination. Thordarson can repeat that one more time before Canadian midfielder Terry Dunfield departs for international duty with the Canucks.

"It's been a long time coming," 'Caps captain Jay DeMerit said to about the consecutive starting XI feat. "That shows the roller coaster that we’ve been on this season."

Zero. That's how many wins were accrued by Vancouver since the club's 4-2 win over Toronto FC on March 19 -- also known as the first week of the season. The 'Caps have five draws and five losses over that stretch and have not scored more than one goal in any match since Camilo netted two stoppage-time strikes in a wild 3-3 draw against Sporting Kansas City on April 2. (The Brazilian striker is also goalless since a 3-1 loss on April 10 against the Houston Dynamo.)

Pop-Up Empire. Saturday's match represents New York's first match against the expansion Whitecaps and the club's first and last visit to Empire Field. Vancouver presently plays in a temporary pop-up stadium while the province executes renovations at B.C. Place, the permanent home for the 'Caps and the Canadian Football League's B.C. Lions. It sits on the former site of Empire Stadium, the former home of the 'Caps during their NASL tenure in the 1970s and '80s, and features a FieldTurf playing surface -- making it New York's first match on FieldTurf this season.