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.