Can the Red Bulls Recreate 2008?

There’s been an acute outbreak of Playoff Fever at the BP HQ. The 2011 MLS postseason kicks off tonight in Frisco, Texas, with a match between FC Dallas and our beloved, beleaguered New York Red Bulls (9:00 ET, Fox Soccer).

We profiled Dallas’s excellent coach Schellas Hyndman for the league site yesterday; please give it a read. Chances are he’ll have his side ready to go tonight, even if they stumbled a bit down the stretch as the games and the injuries piled up. Between the CONCACAF Champions League, the US Open Cup, and the MLS season, Dallas has played 47 games this season. Last year, they played 34, “MLS Cup final included,” Hyndman told us.

The Hoops rested just about every starter (including wingers Marvin Chavez and Brek Shea, Hernandez, goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, defender Zach Loyd and midfielders Daniel Cruz and Ricardo Villar) in the season finale against San Jose this past Saturday, so the core of the team should have their legs back for tonight.

The Red Bulls will have everyone available except striker Luke Rodgers, the pugnacious Englishman who has been surprisingly important to the team this year. In a stat that coach Hans Backe called “frightening,” New York is 9-4-7 with 32 goals scored when Rodgers starts, and 1-4-9 with 18 goals scored when he’s not in the lineup. He won’t be in the lineup tonight as he has knee swelling and didn’t even make the trip to Texas.

So what can we expect from New York tonight? Let’s take stock:

After a bright start to the season, the Red Bulls struggled for most of the summer, racking up a record 16 ties and generally laboring to stay above .500. There were epic collapses at big moments, an embarrassing locker room controversy, an equally embarrassing goalkeeping crisis, misbehavior from a superstar, and a sophomore slump from their promising young centerback.

Yet they bounced back somewhat down the stretch, piecing together enough wins and clutch performances to edge into the playoffs.

And now … well, it’s a brand new season. They certainly have the talent to beat any team in the league, and are capable of making a run. Considering the players they have, it wouldn’t be as surprising as their 2008 playoff odyssey, when New York went 10-11-9 during the season, squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed, then knocked off Houston and Real Salt Lake to reach the championship game.

They ended up losing that game, 3-1 to Columbus, but the team had a pronounced just-happy-to-be-here attitude back then. If this group somehow gets to the final, you can bet they’ll smell blood in the water.

Of course, they have a long way to go to get there—longer than in 2008, when there were only eight teams in the playoffs.

This year, if they get by Dallas, New York will meet Los Angeles in a home-and-home total-goals series (second game at LA). If they get past that stage, it would be on to the conference final, a do-or-die single game, at either Seattle or Real Salt Lake.

A victory there would put them in the MLS Cup against either Colorado or a team from the East. It would also mean they had earned their berth in the final, having defeated three of the top four teams in the league, all on the road.

But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves. It starts tonight, on the road at FCD. If New York is going to get by the first round, they’ll have to be sound defensively, and look to their big guns to snatch a goal or two.

As for the defensive part of the equation, the backline will know when they’ve slipped up, because keeper Frank Rost will revert to his native German. As Tim Ream told The Wall Street Journal, “That’s like your mom calling you by your first, middle and last name all at once. If he slips into German, everybody’s a little on edge.”

Here’s hoping Rost sticks to English all game long, and that striker Juan Agudelo gets a run—you know the 18 year old will be fired up to make a mark if given the chance in a big game like this.

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One comment on “Can the Red Bulls Recreate 2008?

  1. refbaiter says:

    I don’t know how fair it is to expect something from Agudelo. He hasn’t been given meaningful minutes in weeks. Its a shame. He could have been a dynamic outside midfielder for the balance of the season.

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