Kemar Lawrence: “We’re going there full force and focus.” (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
If the Red Bulls are going to make a run for the Eastern Conference title, then their next two games are vital for their success.
If New York (14-6-2, 44 points) can win its next two MLS matches, it will find itself atop the conference past idle Atlanta United (14-4-6, 48).
Entering the weekend, the second-place Red Bulls have two games in hand on the second-year team.
So, by the time Atlanta comes off its break for its Aug. 19 home match against Columbus Crew SC (10-7-6, 36), the Red Bulls could be atop the conference.
Of course, they need to register not one, but two road wins, Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET at the struggling Chicago Fire (6-13-5, 23), which is 10th out of 11 teams in the East, and then a week from Saturday, Aug. 18 at the seventh-place Vancouver Whitecaps FC (8-9-6, 30), which is battling for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
But before the Red Bulls can think about topping the conference, they have to face a hungry and underachieving Chicago side.
“The hope is to win every game coming up,” left back Kemar Lawrence said. “This is a big one coming up on Saturday. I think we’re going there full force and focus. They’re good especially at home. Every team is really good at home, so it’s always hard when we go away to play, but we haven’t been giving up anything lately, so we just want to keep it like that.”
The Fire is 4-10-4 in its last 18 games, since it recorded a 2-1 win at Red Bull Arena April 21.
“I think you do yourself a disservice if you look at their form and you go in underestimating them on past results,” midfielder Sean Davis said. “I don’t think that does us any good. Instead every team like you said is desperate at this point in the year. Desperate to make playoffs, pick up points, at home especially, so we know it’s going to be a challenge. There are a million reasons why it’s going to be difficult and we have to make sure we show up with the right mentality, which I’m confident we will.”
Chris Armas returns to Chicago, where he forged a reputation as one of the best defensive midfielders in league history, for the first time as head coach.
“Chicago has always given us trouble and they give most teams trouble,” he said, “especially in their building. You saw what they did to us in our building. They were the better team on the day and they deserved it. I don’t think it’s going to take much motivating or talking about that with our group.
“I think we’re focused and we understand that we have to bring our best stuff all the time and that’s in terms of the football and in terms of the alertness and not letting any play slip, set pieces, and so on. Of course, it will be a little reminder, but I think this far into the season and this far into our tenure here with the team, I think they’ll understand what this game requires.”